Skip to main content

Full text of "Kora in hell: improvisations"

See other formats


IMPROVISATIONS 


By  William  Carlos  Williams 

The  Tempers 
Al  Que  Quiere ! 
Kora  in  Hell 


Drawing  by  Stuait  Davis 


KORA    IN    HELL: 
IMPROVISATIONS 


BY 

WILLIAM    CARLOS    WILLIAMS 


BOSTON 

THE  FOUR  SEAS  COMPANY 
1920 


N 

>*i* 

Copyright,  1920,  by 
THE  FOUR  SEAS  COMPANY 


The  Four   Seas   Press 
Boston,  Mass.,  U.  S.  A. 


PS  3  S4  5 


KL? 


TO  FLOSSIE 


PROLOGUE 


PROLOGUE 


THE  RETURN  OF  THE  SUN 

Her  voice  was  like  rose-fragrance 

waltzing  in  the  wind. 
She  seemed  a  shadow,  stained  with 

shadow  colors, 
Swimming  through  waves  of  sunlight  .   .   . 

The  sole  precedent  I  can  find  for  the  broken  style  of  my 
prologue  is  Longinus  on  the  Sublime  and  that  one  far-fetched. 

When  my  mother  was  in  Rome  on  that  rare  journey  forever 
to  be  remembered,  she  lived  in  a  small  pension  near  the  Pincio 
gardens.  The  place  had  been  chosen  by  my  brother  as  one 
notably  easy  of  access,  being  in  a  quarter  free  from  confusion 
of  traffic,  on  a  street  close  to  the  park  and  furthermore  the  tram 
to  the  American  Academy  passed  at  the  corner.  Yet  never  did 
my  mother  go  out  but  she  was  in  fear  of  being  lost.  By  turning 
to  the  left  when  she  should  have  turned  right,  actually  she  did 
once  manage  to  go  so  far  astray  that  it  was  nearly  an  hour  before 
she  extricated  herself  from  the  strangeness  of  every  new  vista 
and  found  a  landmark. 

There  has  always  been  a  disreputable  man  of  picturesque 
personality  associated  with  this  lady.  Their  relations  have  been 
marked  by  the  most  rollicking  spirit  of  comradeship.  Now  it  has 
been  William,  former  sailor  in  Admiral  Dewey's  fleet  at  Manila, 
then  Tom  O'Rourck  who  has  come  to  her  to  do  odd  jobs  and  to 
be  cared  for  more  or  less  when  drunk  or  ill,  their  Penelope. 
William  would  fall  from  the  grapearbor  much  to  my  mother's 
amusement  and  delight  and  to  his  blustering  discomfiture  or  he 
would  stagger  to  the  back  door  nearly  unconscious  from  bad 
whiskey.  There  she  would  serve  him  with  very  hot  and  very 
strong  coffee,  then  put  him  to  scrubbing  the  kitchen  floor  into 
his  suddy-pail  pouring  half  a  bottle  of  ammonia  which  would 

[9] 


io  PROLOGUE 


make  the  man  gasp  and  water  at  the  eyes  as  he  worked  and 
became  sober. 

She  has  always  been  incapable  of  learning  from  benefit  or 
disaster.  If  a  man  cheat  her  she  will  remember  that  man  with  a 
violence  that  I  have  seldom  seen  equaled  but  so  far  as  that  could 
have  an  influence  on  her  judgment  of  the  next  man  or  woman, 
she  might  be  living  in  Eden.  And  indeed  she  is,  an  impoverished, 
ravished  Eden  but  one  indestructible  as  the  imagination  itself. 
Whatever  is  before  her  is  sufficient  to  itself  and  so  to  be  valued. 
Her  meat  though  more  delicate  in  fiber  is  of  a  kind  with  that  of 
Villon  and  La  Grosse  Margot: 

Vente,  gresle,  gelle,  j'ai  mon  pain  cuit! 

Carl  Sandburg  sings  a  negro  cotton  picker's  song  of  the  bol 
weevil.  Verse  after  verse  tells  what  they  would  do  to  the  insect. 
They  propose  to  place  it  in  the  sand,  in  hot  ashes,  in  the  river,  and 
other  unlikely  places  but  the  bol  weevil's  refrain  is  always: 
"That'll  be  ma  HOME !  That'll  be  ma  HOOME !" 

My  mother  is  given  over  to  frequent  periods  of  great  depres 
sion  being  as  I  believe  by  nature  the  most  light-hearted  thing  in 
the  world.  But  there  comes  a  grotesque  turn  to  her  talk,  a 
macabre  anecdote  concerning  some  dream,  a  passionate  statement 
about  death,  which  elevates  her  mood  without  marring  it,  some 
times  in  a  most  startling  way. 

Looking  out  at  our  parlor  window  one  day  I  said  to  her: 
"We  see  all  the  shows  from  here,  don't  we,  all  the  weddings  and 
funerals?"  (They  had  been  preparing  a  funeral  across  the  street, 
the  undertaker  was  just  putting  on  his  overcoat.)  She  replied: 
"Funny  profession  that,  burying  the  dead  people.  I  should  think 
they  wouldn't  have  any  delusions  of  life  left."  W. — Oh  yes,  it's 
merely  a  profession.  M. — Hm.  And  how  they  study  it!  They 
say  sometimes  people  look  terrible  and  they  come  and  make  them 
look  fine.  They  push  things  into  their  mouths !  (Realistic  ges 
ture)  W. — Mama!  M. — Yes,  when  they  haven't  any  teeth. 

By  some  such  dark  turn  at  the  end  she  raises  her  story  out 
of  the  commonplace:  "Look  at  that  chair,  look  at  it!  (The 
plasterers  had  just  left)  If  Mrs.  J.  or  Mrs.  D.  saw  that  they 
would  have  a  fit."  W.— Call  them  in,  maybe  it  will  kill  them. 
M. — But  they're  not  near  as  bad  as  that  woman,  you  know,  her 
husband  was  in  the  chorus, — has  a  little  daughter  Helen.  Mrs. 


PROLOGUE  ii 


B.  yes.  She  once  wanted  to  take  rooms  here.  I  didn't  want  her. 
They  told  me :  'Mrs.  Williams,  I  heard  you're  going  to  have  Mrs. 
B.  She  is  particular.'  She  said  so  herself.  Oh  no !  Once  she 
burnt  all  her  face  painting  under  the  sink. 

Thus  seeing  the  thing  itself  without  forethought  or  after 
thought  but  with  great  intensity  of  perception  my  mother  loses 
her  bearings  or  associates  with  some  disreputable  person  or  trans 
lates  a  dark  mood.  She  is  a  creature  of  great  imagination.  I 
might  say  this  is  her  sole  remaining  quality.  She  is  a  despoiled, 
moulted  castaway  but  by  this  power  she  still  breaks  life  between 
her  fingers. 

Once  when  I  was  taking  lunch  with  Walter  Arensberg  at  a 
small  place  on  63rd  St.  I  asked  him  if  he  could  state  what  the 
more  modern  painters  were  about,  those  roughly  classed  at  that 
time  as  "cubists" :  Gleisze,  Man  Ray,  Demuth,  Du  Champs — all  of 
whom  were  then  in  the  city.  He  replied  by  saying  that  the  only 
way  man  differed  from  every  other  creature  was  in  his  ability  to 
improvise  novelty  and,  since  the  pictorial  artist  was  under  dis 
cussion,  anything  in  paint  that  is  truly  new,  truly  a  fresh  creation 
is  good  art.  Thus  according  to  Du  Champs,  who  was  Arensberg's 
champion  at  the  time,  a  stained  glass  window  that  had  fallen  out 
and  lay  more  or  less  together  on  the  ground  was  of  far  greater 
interest  than  the  thing  conventionally  composed  in  situ. 

We  returned  to  Arensberg's  sumptuous  studio  where  he  gave 
further  point  to  his  remarks  by  showing  me  what  appeared  to  be 
the  original  of  Du  Champs'  famous,  Nude  Descending  a  Staircase. 
But  this,  he  went  on  to  say,  is  a  full-sized  photographic  print  of 
the  first  picture  with  many  new  touches  by  Du  Champs  himself 
and  so  by  the  technique  of  its  manufacture  as  by  other  means  it 
is  a  novelty! 

Led  on  by  these  enthusiasms  Arensberg  has  been  an  inde 
fatigable  worker  for  the  yearly  salon  of  the  Society  of  Independ 
ent  Artists,  Inc.  I  remember  the  warmth  of  his  description  of  a 
pilgrimage  to  the  home  of  that  old  Boston  hermit  who  watched 
over  by  a  forbidding  landlady  (evidently  in  his  pay)  paints  the 
cigar-box-cover-like  nudes  upon  whose  fingers  he  presses  actual 
rings  with  glass  jewels  from  the  five  and  ten  cent  store. 

I  wish  Arensberg  had  my  opportunity  for  prying  into  jaded 
households  where  the  paintings  of  Mama's  and  Papa's  flowertime 
still  hang  on  the  walls.  I  propose  that  Arensberg  be  commis- 


12  PROLOGUE 


sioned  by  the  Independent  Artists  to  scour  the  country  for  the 
abortive  paintings  of  those  men  and  women  who  without  master 
or  method  have  evolved  perhaps  two  or  three  unusual  creations 
in  their  early  years.  I  would  start  the  collection  with  a  painting 
I  have  by  a  little  English  woman,  A.  E.  Kerr,  1906,  that  in  its 
unearthly  gaiety  of  flowers  and  sobriety  of  design  possesses  ex 
actly  that  strange  freshness  a  spring  day  approaches  without 
attaining,  an  expansion  of  April,  a  thing  this  poor  woman  found 
too  costly  for  her  possession — she  could  not  swallow  it  as  the 
niggers  do  diamonds  in  the  mines.  Carefully  selected  these  queer 
products  might  be  housed  to  good  effect  in  some  unpretentious 
exhibition  chamber  across  the  city  from  the  Metropolitan  Museum 
of  Art.  In  the  anteroom  could  be  hung  perhaps  photographs  of 
prehistoric  rock-paintings  and  etchings  on  horn :  galloping  bisons 
and  stags,  the  hind  feet  of  which  have  been  caught  by  the  artist 
in  such  a  position  that  from  that  time  until  the  invention  of  the 
camera  obscura,  a  matter  of  6000  years  or  more,  no  one  on  earth 
had  again  depicted  that  most  delicate  and  expressive  posture  of 
running. 

The  amusing  controversy  between  Arensberg  and  Du  Champs 
on  one  side,  and  the  rest  of  the  hanging  committee  on  the  other  as 
to  whether  the  porcelain  urinal  was  to  be  admitted  to  the  Palace 
Exhibition  of  1917  as  a  representative  piece  of  American  Sculp 
ture  should  not  be  allowed  to  slide  into  oblivion. 

One  day  Du  Champs  decided  that  his  composition  for  that 
day  would  be  the  first  thing  that  struck  his  eye  in  the  first 
hardware  store  he  should  enter.  It  turned  out  to  be  a  pickaxe 
which  he  bought  and  set  up  in  his  studio.  This  was  his  composi 
tion.  Together  with  Mina  Loy  and  a  few  others  Du  Champs  and 
Arensberg  brought  out  the  paper,  The  Blind  Man,  to  which  Rob 
ert  Carlton  Brown  with  his  vision  of  suicide  by  diving  from  a  high 
window  of  the  Singer  Building  contributed  a  few  poems. 

In  contradistinction  to  their  south,  Marianne  Moore's  state 
ment  to  me  at  the  Chatham  parsonage  one  afternoon — my  wife 
and  I  were  just  on  the  point  of  leaving — sets  up  a  north:  My 
work  has  come  to  have  just  one  quality  of  value  in  it :  I  will  not 
touch  or  have  to  do  with  those  things  which  I  detest.  In  this 
austerity  of  mood  she  finds  sufficient"  freedom  for  the  play  she 
chooses. 

Of  all  those  writing  poetry  in  America  at  the  time  she  was 
here  Marianne  Moore  was  the  only  one  Mina  Loy  feared.  By 


PROLOGUE  13 


divergent  virtues  these  two  women  have  achieved  freshness  of 
presentation,  novelty,  freedom,  break  with  banality. 

When  Margaret  Anderson  published  my  first  improvisations 
Ezra  Pound  wrote  me  one  of  his  hurried  letters  in  which  he  urged 
me  to  give  some  hint  by  which  the  reader  of  good  will  might  come 
at  my  intention. 

Before  Ezra's  permanent  residence  in  London,  on  one  of  his 
trips  to  America — brought  on  I  think  by  an  attack  of  jaundice — 
he  was  glancing  through  some  book  of  my  father's.  "It  is  not 
necessary,"  he  said,  "to  read  everything  in  a  book  in  order  to  speak 
intelligently  of  it.  Don't  tell  everybody  I  said  so,"  he  added. 

During  this  same  visit  my  father  and  he  had  been  reading 
arid  discussing  poetry  together.  Pound  has  always  liked  my  fath 
er.  "I  of  course  like  your  Old  Man  and  I  have  drunk  his  Gold- 
wasser."  They  were  hot  for  an  argument  that  day.  My  parent 
had  been  holding  forth  in  downright  sentences  upon  my  own 
"idle  nonsense"  when  he  turned  and  became  equally  vehement 
concerning  something  Ezra  had  written:  what  in  heaven's  name 
Ezra  meant  by  "jewels"  in  a  verse  that  had  come  between  them. 
These  jewels, — rubies,  sapphires,  amethysts  and  what  not,  Pound 
went  on  to  explain  with  great  determination  and  care,  were  the 
backs  of  books  as  they  stood  on  a  man's  shelf.  "But  why  in 
heaven's  name  don't  you  say  so  then?"  was  my  father's  triumph 
ant  and  crushing  rejoinder. 

The  letter:  .  .  .  God  knows  I  have  to  work  hard 
enough  to  escape,  not  propagande,  but  getting  centered 
in  propagande.  And  America?  What  the  h — 1  do  you 
a  blooming  foreigner  know  about  the  place.  Your  pere 
only  penetrated  the  edge,  and  you've  never  been  west 
of  Upper  Darby,  or  the  Maunchunk  switchback. 

Would  H.,  with  the  swirl  of  the  prairie  wind  in  her 
underwear,  or  the  Virile  Sandburg  recognize  you,  an 
effete  easterner  as  a  REAL  American?  INCON 
CEIVABLE  ! ! ! ! ! 

My  dear  boy  you  have  never  felt  the  woop  of  the 
PEEraries.  You  have  never  seen  the  projecting  and 
protuberant  Mts.  of  the  Sierra  Nevada.  WOT  can 
you  know  of  the  country? 

You  have  the  naive  credulity  of  a  Co.  Claire  emi- 


I4  PROLOGUE 


grant.  But  I  (der  grosse  Ich)  have  the  virus,  the 
bacillus  of  the  land  in  my  blood,  for  nearly  three  bleat 
ing  centuries. 

(Bloody  snob,     'eave  a  brick  at  'im!!!)  .  .   . 

I  was  very  glad  to  see  your  wholly  incoherent 
unamerican  poems  in  the  L.  R. 

Of  course  Sandburg  will  tell  you  that  you  miss  the 
"big  drifts,"  and  Bodenheim  will  object  to  your  not 
being  sufficiently  decadent. 

You  thank  your  bloomin  gawd  you've  got  enough 
Spanish  blood  to  muddy  up  your  mind,  and  prevent  the 
current  American  ideation  from  going  through  it  like  a 
blighted  collander. 

The  thing  that  saves  your  work  is  opacity,  and  don't 
forget  it.  Opacity  is  NOT  an  American  quality. 
Fizz,  swish,  gabble,  and  verbiage,  these  are  echt  Amer- 
icanisch. 

And  alas,  alas,  poor  old  Masters.  Look  at  Oct. 
Poetry. 

Let  me  indulge  the  American  habit  of  quotation: 

"Si  le  cosmopolitisme  litteraire  gagnait  encore  et 
qu'il  reussit  a  etaindre  ce  que  les  difference  de  race  ont 
allume  de  haine  de  sang  parmi  les  hommes,  j'y  verrais 
un  gain  pour  la  civilization  et  pour  1'humanite  tout 
entiere"  .... 

"L'amour  excessif  d'une  patrie  a  pour  immediat 
corollair  1'horreur  des  patries  etrangeres.  Non  seul- 
ment  on  craint  de  quitter  la  jupe  de  sa  maman,  d'aller 
voir  comment  vivent  les  autres  hommes,  de  se  meler  a 
leur  luttes,  de  partager  leur  travaux,  non  seulment  on 
reste  chez  soi,  mais  on  finit  par  fermer  sa  porte." 

"Cette  folie  gagne  certains  litterateurs  et  le  meme 
professeur,  en  sortant  d'expliquer  le  Cid  ou  Don  Juan, 
redige  de  gracieuses  injures  centre  Ibsen  et  I'mfluence, 
helas,  trop  illusoire,  de  son  oevre,  pourtant  toute  de 
lumiere  et  de  beaute."  et  cetera.  Lie  down  and  com 
pose  yourself. 

I  like  to  think  of  the  Greeks  as  setting  out  for  the  colonies  in 
Sicily  and  the  Italian  Peninsula.     The  Greek  temperament  lent 


PROLOGUE  15 


itself  to  a  certain  symmetrical  sculptural  phase  and  to  a  fat 
poetical  balance  of  line  that  produced  important  work  but  I  like 
better  the  Greeks  setting  their  backs  to  Athens.  The  ferment 
was  always  richer  in  Rome,  the  dispersive  explosion  was  always 
nearer,  the  influence  carried  further  and  remained  hot  longer. 
Hellenism,  especially  the  modern  sort,  is  too  staid,  too  chilly,  too 
little  fecundative  to  impregnate  my  world. 

Hilda  Doolittle  before  she  began  to  write  poetry  or  at  least 
before  she  began  to  show  it  to  anyone  would  say:  "You're  not 
satisfied  with  me,  are  you  Billy?  There's  something  lacking, 
isn't  there  ?"  When  I  was  with  her  my  feet  always  seemed  to  be 
sticking  to  the  ground  while  she  would  be  walking  on  the  tips  of 
the  grass  stems. 

Ten  years  later  as  assistant  editor  of  the  Egoist  she  refers  to 
my  long  poem,  March,  which  thanks  to  her  own  and  her  husband's 
friendly  attentions  finally  appeared  there  in  a  purified  form : 

14  Aug.  1916 
Dear  Bill  :— 

I  trust  you  will  not  hate  me  for  wanting  to  delete 
from  your  poem  all  the  flippancies.  The  reason  I  want 
to  do  this  is  that  the  beautiful  lines  are  so  very  beautiful 
— so  in  the  tone  and  spirit  of  your  Postlude —  (which  to 
me  stands,  a  Nike,  supreme  among  your  poems).  I 
think  there  is  real  beauty — and  real  beauty  is  a  rare  and 
sacred  thing  in  this  generation — in  all  the  pyramid, 
Ashur-ban-i-pal  bits  and  in  the  Fiesole  and  in  the  wind 
at  the  very  last. 

I  don't  know  what  you  think  but  I  consider  this 
business  of  writing  a  very  sacred  thing! — I  think  you 
have  the  "spark" — am  sure  of  it,  and  when  you  speak 
direct  are  a  poet.  I  feel  in  the  hey-ding-ding  touch 
running  through  your  poem  a  derivitive  tendency  which, 
to  me,  is  not  you — not  your  very  self.  It  is  as  if  you 
were  ashamed  of  your  Spirit,  ashamed  of  your  inspir 
ation! — as  if  you  mocked  at  your  own  song.  It's  very 
well  to  mock  at  yourself — it  is  a  spiritual  sin  to  mock  at 
your  inspiration — 

Hilda. 

Oh  well,  all  this  might  be  very  disquieting  were  it  not  that 
"sacred"  has  lately  been  discovered  to  apply  to  a  point  of  arrest 


16  PROLOGUE 


where  stabilization  has  gone  on  past  the  time.  There  is  nothing 
sacred  about  literature,  it  is  damned  from  one  end  to  the  other. 
There  is  nothing  in  literature  but  change  and  change  is  mockery. 
I'll  write  whatever  I  damn  please,whenever  I  damn  please  and  as 
I  damn  please  and  it'll  be  good  if  the  authentic  spirit  of  change  is 
on  it. 

But  in  any  case  H.  D.  misses  the  entire  intent  of  what  I  am 
doing  no  matter  how  just  her  remarks  concerning  that  particular 
poem  happen  to  have  been.  The  hey-ding-ding  touch  was  derivi- 
tive  but  it  filled  a  gap  that  I  did  not  know  how  better  to  fill  at  the 
time.  It  might  be  said  that  that  touch  is  the  prototype  of  the. 
improvisations. 

It  is  to  the  inventive  imagination  we  look  for  deliverance 
from  every  other  misfortune  as  from  the  desolation  of  a  flat 
Hellenic  perfection  of  style.  What  good  then  to  turn  to  art  from 
the  atavistic  religionists,  from  a  science  doing  slavey  service  upon 
gas  engines,  from  a  philosophy  tangled  in  a  miserable  sort  of 
dialect  that  means  nothing  if  the  full  power  of  initiative  be  denied 
at  the  beginning  by  a  lot  of  baying  and  snapping  scholiasts? 
If  the  inventive  imagination  must  look,  as  I  think,  to  the  field  of 
art  for  its  richest  discoveries  today  it  will  best  make  its  way  by 
compass  and  follow  no  path. 

But  before  any  material  progress  can  be  accomplished  there 
must  be  someone  to  draw  a  discriminating  line  between  true  and 
false  values. 

The  true  value  is  that  peculiarity  which  gives  an  object  a 
character  by  itself.  The  associational  or  sentimental  value  is  the 
false.  Its  imposition  is  due  to  lack  of  imagination,  to  an  easy 
lateral  sliding.  The  attention  has  been  held  too  rigid  on  the  one 
plane  instead  of  following  a  more  flexible,  jagged  resort.  It  is 
to  loosen  the  attention,  my  attention  since  I  occupy  part  of  the 
field,  that  I  write  these  improvisations.  Here  I  clash  with  Wal 
lace  Stevens. 

The  imagination  goes  from  one  thing  to  another.  Given 
many  things  of  nearly  totally  divergent  natures  but  possessing 
one- thousandth  part  of  a  quality  in  common,  provided  that  be 
new,  distinguished,  these  things  belong  in  an  imaginative  category 
and  not  in  a  gross  natural  array.  To  me  this  is  the  gist  of  the 
whole  matter.  It  is  easy  to  fall  under  the  spell  of  a  certain  mode, 
especially  if  it  be  remote  of  origin,  leaving  thus  certain  of  its 
members  essential  to  a  reconstruction  of  its  significance  perma- 


PROLOGUE  17 


nently  lost  in  an  impenetrable  mist  of  time.  But  the  thing  that 
stands  eternally  in  the  way  of  really  good  writing  is  always  one: 
the  virtual  impossibility  of  lifting  to  the  imagination  those  things 
which  lie  under  the  direct  scrutiny  of  the  senses,  close  to  the  nose. 
It  is  this  difficulty  that  sets  a  value  upon  all  works  of  art  and 
makes  them  a  necessity.  The  senses  witnessing  what  is  imme 
diately  before  them  in  detail  see  a  finality  which  they  cling  to  in 
despair,  not  knowing  which  way  to  turn.  Thus  the  so-called 
natural  or  scientific  array  becomes  fixed,  the  walking  devil  of 
modern  life.  He  who  even  nicks  the  solidity  of  this  apparition 
does  a  piece  of  work  superior  to  that  of  Hercules  when  he  cleaned 
the  Augean  stables. 

Stevens'  letter  applies  really  to  my  book  of  poems,  "Al  Que 
Quiere"  (which  means,  by  the  way,  To  Him  Who  Wants  It)  but 
the  criticism  he  makes  of  that  holds  good  for  each  of  the  impro 
visations  if  not  for  the  oevre  as  a  whole. 

It  begins  with  a  postscript  in  the  upper  left  hand  corner: 
"I  think,  after  all,  I  should  rather  send  this  than  not,  although  it  is 
quarrelsomely  full  of  my  own  ideas  of  discipline. 

April  9 
My  dear  Williams: 


What  strikes  me  most  about  the  poems  themselves 
is  their  casual  character  .  .  .  Personally  I  have  a 
distaste  for  miscellany.  It  is  one  of  the  reasons  I  do 
not  bother  about  a  book  myself. 

(Wallace  Stevens  is  a  fine  gentleman  whom  Cannell 
likened  to  a  Pennsylvania  Dutchman  who  has  suddenly 
become  aware  of  his  habits  and  taken  to  "society"  in 
self  defence.  He  is  always  immaculately  dressed.  I 
don't  know  why  I  should  always  associate  him  in  my 
mind  with  an  imaginary  image  I  have  of  Ford  Madox 
Hueffer.) 

.  .  .  My  idea  is  that  in  order  to  carry  a  thing  to  the 
extreme  necessity  to  convey  it  one  has  to  stick  to  it ;  .  . 
Given  a  fixed  point  of  view,  realistic,  imagistic  or  what 
you  will,  everything  adjusts  itself  to  that  point  of  view; 
and  the  process  of  adjustment  is  a  world  in  flux,  as  it 
should  be  for  a  poet.  But  to  fidget  with  points  of  view 


18  PROLOGUE 


leads  always  to  new  beginnings  and  incessant  new  be 
ginnings  lead  to  sterility. 

(This  sounds  like  Sir  Roger  de  Coverly) 

A  single  manner 

or  mood  thoroughly  matured  and  exploited  is  that  fresh 
thing  .    .  etc. 

One   has   to   keep   looking   for   poetry   as   Renoir 
looked  for  colors  in  old  walls,  wood-work  and  so  on. 
Your  place  is 

— among  children  ? 

Leaping  around  a  dead  dog. 

A  book  of  that  would  feed  the  hungry  .   .   . 

Well  a  book  of  poems  is  a  damned  serious  affair. 
I  am  only  objecting  that  a  book  that  contains  your 
particular  quality  should  contain  anything  else  and  sug 
gesting  that  if  the  quality  were  carried  to  a  commun 
icable  extreme,  in  intensity  and  volume,  etc.  ...  I  see 
it  all  over  the  book,  in  your  landscapes  and  portraits, 
but  dissipated  and  obscured.  Bouquets  for  brides  and 
Spencerian  compliments  for  poets  .  .  .  There  are  a 
very  few  men  who  have  anything  native  in  them  or  for 
whose  work  I'd  give  a  Bolshevic  ruble  .  .  .  But  I 
think  your  tantrums  not  half  mad  enough. 

(I  am  not  quite  clear  about  the  last  sentence  but  I 
presume  he  means  that  I  do  not  push  my  advantage 
through  to  an  overwhelming  decision.  What  would 
you  have  me  do  with  my  Circe,  Stevens,  now  that  I  have 
doublecrossed  her  game,  marry  her?  It  is  not  what 
Odysseus  did). 

I  return  Pound's  letter  .  .  observe  how  in  every 
thing  he  does  he  proceeds  with  the  greatest  positiveness 
etc. 

Wallace  Stevens. 

I  wish  that  I  might  here  set  down  my  "Vortex"  after  the 
fashion  of  London,  1913,  stating  how  little  it  means  to  me  whether 
I  live  here,  there  or  elsewhere  or  succeed  in  this,  that  or  the  other 
so  long  as  I  can  keep  my  mind  free  from  the  trammels  of 
literature,  beating  down  every  attack  of  its  retiarii  with  my 
mirmillones.  But  the  time  is  past. 


PROLOGUE  19 


I  thought  at  first  to  adjoin  to  each  improvisation  a  more  or 
less  opaque  commentary.  But  the  mechanical  interference  that 
would  result  makes  this  inadvisable.  Instead  I  have  placed  some 
of  them  in  the  preface  where  without  losing  their  original  inten 
tion  (see  reference  numerals  at  the  beginning  of  each)  they 
relieve  the  later  text  and  also  add  their  weight  to  my  present 
fragmentary  argument. 

V.  No.  2.  By  the  brokeness  of  his  composition  the  poet 
makes  himself  master  of  a  certain  weapon  which  he  could  possess 
himself  of  in  no  other  way.  The  speed  of  the  emotions  is 
sometimes  such  that  thrashing  about  in  a  thin  exaltation  or 
despair  many  matters  are  touched  but  not  held,  more  often  brok 
en  by  the  contact. 

II.  No.  3.  The  instability  of  these  improvisations  would 
seem  such  that  they  must  inevitably  crumble  under  the  attention 
and  become  particles  of  a  wind  that  falters.  It  would  appear  to 
the  unready  that  the  fiber  of  the  thing  is  a  thin  jelly.  It  would  be 
these  same  fools  who  would  deny  touch  cords  to  the  wind  because 
they  cannot  split  a  storm  endwise  and  wrap  it  upon  spools.  The 
virtue  of  strength  lies  not  in  the  grossness  of  the  fiber  but  in  the 
fiber  itself.  Thus  a  poem  is  tough  by  no  quality  it  borrows  from 
a  logical  recital  of  events  nor  from  the  events  themselves  but 
solely  from  that  attenuated  power  which  draws  perhaps  many 
broken  things  into  a  dance  giving  them  thus  a  full  being. 

*  *  It  is  seldom  that  anything  but  the  most  elementary  com 
munications  can  be  exchanged  one  with  another.  There  are  in 
reality  only  two  or  three  reasons  generally  accepted  as  the  causes 
of  action.  No  matter  what  the  motive  it  will  seldom  happen  that 
true  knowledge  of  it  will  be  anything  more  than  vaguely  divined 
by  some  one  person,  some  half  a  person  whose  intimacy  has 
perhaps  been  cultivated  over  the  whole  of  a  lifetime.  We  live  in 
bags.  This  is  due  to  the  gross  fiber  of  all  action.  By  action 
itself  almost  nothing  can  be  imparted.  The  world  of  action  is  a 
world  of  stones. 

XV.  No.  i.  Bla!  Bla!  Bla!  Heavy  talk  is  talk  that  waits 
upon  a  deed.  Talk  is  servile  that  is  set  to  inform.  Words  with 
the  bloom  on  them  run  before  the  imagination  like  the  saeter  girls 


20  PROLOGUE 


before  Peer  Gynt.  It  is  talk  with  the  patina  of  whim  upon  it 
makes  action  a  boot-licker.  So  nowadays  poets  spit  upon  rhyme 
and  rhetoric. 

*  *  The  stream  of  things  having  composed  itself  into  wiry- 
strands  that  move  in  one  fixed  direction,  the  poet  in  desperation 
turns  at  right  angles  and  cuts  across  current  with  startling  results 
to  his  hangdog  mood. 

XI.  No.  2.  In  France,  the  country  of  Rabelais,  they  know 
that  the  world  is  not  made  up  entirely  of  virgins.     They  do  not 
deny  virtue  to  the  rest  because  of  that.     Each  age  has  its  perfec 
tions  but  the  praise  differs.     It  is  only  stupid  when  the  praise  of 
the  gross  and  the  transformed  would  be  minted  in  unfit  terms 
such  as  suit  nothing  but  youth's  sweetness  and  frailty.     It  is  ne 
cessary  to  know  that  laughter  is  the  reverse  of  aspiration.     So 
they  laugh  well  in  France,  at  Coquelin  and  the  Petoman.     Their 
girls,  also,  thrive  upon  the  love-making  they  get,  so  much  so  that 
the  world  runs  to  Paris  for  that  reason. 

XII.  No.  2  B.  It  is  chuckleheaded  to  desire  a  way  through 
every  difficulty.     Surely  one  might  even  communicate  with  the 
dead — and  lose  his  taste  for  trufHes.     Because  snails  are  slimy 
when  alive  and  because  slime  is  associated  (erroneously)   with 
filth  the  fool  is  convinced  that  snails  are  detestable  when,  as  it  is 
proven  every  day,  fried  in  butter  with  chopped  parsely  upon  them, 
they  are  delicious.     This  is  both  sides  of  the  question:  the  slave 
and  the  despoiled  of  his  senses  are  one.     But  to  weigh  a  difficulty 
and  to  turn  it  aside  without  being  wrecked  upon  a  destructive 
solution  bespeaks  an  imagination  of  force  sufficient  to  transcend 
action.     The  difficulty  has  thus  been  solved  by  ascent  to  a  higher 
plane.     It  is  energy  of  the  imagination  alone  that  cannot  be  laid 
aside. 

*  *  Rich  as  are  the  gifts  of  the  imagination  bitterness  of 
world's  loss  is  not  replaced  thereby.  On  the  contrary  it  is  inten 
sified,  resembling  thus  possession  itself.  But  he  who  has  no 
power  of  the  imagination  cannot  even  know  the  full  of  his  injury. 

VIII.  No.  3.  Those  who  permit  their  senses  to  be  despoiled 
of  the  things  under  their  noses  by  stories  of  all  manner  of  things 


PROLOGUE  21 


removed  and  unattainable  are  of  frail  imagination.  Idiots,  it  is 
true  nothing  is  possessed  save  by  dint  of  that  vigorous  conception 
of  its  perfections  which  is  the  imagination's  special  province  but 
neither  is  anything  possessed  which  is  not  extant.  A  frail 
imagination,  unequal  to  the  tasks  before  it,  is  easily  led  astray. 

IV.  No.  2.  Although  it  is  a  quality  of  the  imagination  that  it 
seeks  to  place  together  those  things  which  have  a  common  rela 
tionship,  yet  the  coining  of  similies  is  a  pastime  of  very  low  order, 
depending  as  it  does  upon  a  nearly  vegetable  coincidence.  Much 
more  keen  is  that  power  which  discovers  in  things  those  inimitable 
particles  of  dissimilarity  to  all  other  things  which  are  the  peculiar 
perfections  of  the  thing  in  question. 

But  this  loose  linking  of  one  thing  with  another  has  effects 
of  a  destructive  power  little  to  be  guessed  at:  all  manner  of  things 
are  thrown  out  of  key  so  that  it  approaches  the  impossible  to 
arrive  at  an  understanding  of  anything.  All  is  confusion,  yet,  it 
comes  from  a  hidden  desire  for  the  dance,  a  lust  of  the  imagin 
ation,  a  will  to  accord  two  instruments  in  a  duet. 

But  one  does  not  attempt  by  the  ingenuity  of  the  joiner  to 
blend  the  tones  of  the  oboe  with  the  violin.  On  the  contrary  the 
perfections  of  the  two  instruments  are  emphasized  by  the  joiner; 
no  means  is  neglected  to  give  to  each  the  full  color  of  its  perfec 
tions.  It  is  only  the  music  of  the  instruments  which  is  joined  and 
that  not  by  the  woodworker  but  by  the  composer,  by  virtue  of  the 
imagination. 

On  this  level  of  the  imagination  all  things  and  ages  meet  in 
fellowship.  Thus  only  can  they,  peculiar  and  perfect,  find  their 
release.  This  is  the  beneficent  power  of  the  imagination. 

*  *  Age  and  youth  are  great  flatterers.  Brooding  on  each 
other's  obvious  psychology  neither  dares  tell  the  other  outright 
what  manifestly  is  the  truth:  your  world  is  poison.  Each  is 
secure  in  his  own  perfections.  Monsieur  Eichorn  used  to 
have  a  most  atrocious  body  odor  while  the  odor  of  some 
girls  is  a  pleasure  to  the  nostril.  Each  quality  in  each  person 
or  age,  rightly  valued,  would  mean  the  freeing  of  that  age 
to  its  own  delights  of  action  or  repose.  Now  an  evil  odor  can  be 
pursued  with  praise-worthy  ardor  leading  to  great  natural  activity 
whereas  a  flowery  skinned  virgin  may  and  no  doubt  often  does 
allow  herself  to  fall  into  destructive  habits  of  neglect. 


22  PROLOGUE 


XIII.  No.  3.  A  poet  witnessing  the  chicory  flower  and 
realizing  its  virtues  of  form  and  color  so  constructs  his  praise  of 
it  as  to  borrow  no  particle  from  right  or  left.  He  gives  his 
poem  over  to  the  flower  and  its  plant  themselves  that  they  may 
benefit  by  those  cooling  winds  of  the  imagination  which  thus 
returned  upon  them  will  refresh  them  at  their  task  of  saving 
the  world.  But  what  does  it  mean,  remarked  his  friends  ? 

VII.  Coda.  It  would  be  better  than  depriving  birds  of  their 
song  to  call  them  all  nightingales.  So  it  would  be  better  than  to 
have  a  world  stript  of  poetry  to  provide  men  with  some  sort  of* 
eyeglasses  by  which  they  should  be  unable  to  read  any  verse  but 
sonnets.  But  fortunately  although  there  are  many  sorts  of 
fools,  just  as  there  are  many  birds  which  sing  and  many  sorts  of 
poems,  there  is  no  need  to  please  them. 

*  *  All  schoolmasters  are  fools.     Thinking  to  build  in  the 
young  the  foundations  of  knowledge  they  let  slip  their  minds  that 
the  blocks  are  of  grey  mist  bedded  upon  the  wind.     Those  who 
will  taste  of  'the  wind  himself  have  a  mark  in  their  eyes  by  virtue 
of  which  they  bring  their  masters  to  nothing. 

*  *  All  things  brought  under  the  hand  of  the  possessor 
crumble  to  nothingness.     Not  only  that :  He  who  possesses  a  child 
if  he  cling  to  it  inordinately  becomes  childlike,  whereas,  with  a 
twist  of  the  imagination,  himself  may  rise  into  comradeship  with 
the  grave  and  beautiful  presences  of  antiquity.     But  some  have 
the  power  to  free,  say  a  young  matron  pursuing  her  infant,  from 
her  own  possessions,  making  her  kin  to  Yang  Kuei-fei  because  of 
a  haunting  loveliness  that  clings  about  her  knees,  impeding  her 
progress  as  she  takes  up  her  matronly  pursuit. 

*  *  As  to  the  sun  what  is  he,  save  for  his  light,  more  than  the 
earth  is:  the  same  mass  of  metals,  a  mere  shadow?     But  the 
winged  dawn  is  the  very  essence  of  the  sun's  self,  a  thing  cold, 
vitreous,  a  virtue  that  precedes  the  body  which  it  drags  after  it. 

1  The  features  of  a  landscape  take  their  position  in  the 
imagination  and  are  related  more  to  their  own  kind  there  than  to 
the  country  and  season  which  has  held  them  hitherto  as  a  basket 
holds  vegetables  mixed  with  fruit. 


PROLOGUE 23 


VI.  No.  i.  A  fish  swimming  in  a  pond,  were  his  back  white 
and  his  belly  green,  would  be  easily  perceived  from  above  by 
hawks  against  the  dark  depths  of  water  and  from  below  by  larger 
fish  against  the  penetrant  light  of  the  sky.  But  since  his  belly  is 
white  and  his  back  green  he  swims  about  in  safety.  Observing 
this  barren  truth  and  discerning  at  once  its  slavish  application  to 
the  exercises  of  the  mind,  a  young  man,  who  has  been  sitting  for 
some  time  in  contemplation  at  the  edge  of  a  lake,  rejects  with 
scorn  the  parochial  deductions  of  history  and  as  scornfully  as 
serts  his  defiance. 

XIV.  No.  3.  The  barriers  which  keep  the  feet  from  the 
dance  are  the  same  which  in  a  dream  paralyze  the  effort  to  escape 
and  hold  us  powerless  in  the  track  of  some  murderous  pursuer. 
Pant  and  struggle  but  you  cannot  move.  The  birth  of  the  imag 
ination  is  like  waking  from  a  nightmare.  Never  does  the  night 
seem  so  beneficent. 

*  *  The  raw  beauty  of  ignorance  that  lies  like  an  opal  mist 
over  the  west  coast  of  the  Atlantic,  beginning  at  the  Grand  Banks 
and  extending  into  the  recesses  of  our  brains — the  children,  the 
married,  the  unmarried — clings  especially  about  the  eyes  and  the 
throats  of  our  girls  and  boys.  Of  a  Sunday  afternoon  a  girl  sits 
before  a  mechanical  piano  and,  working  it  with  her  hands  and 
feet,  opens  her  mouth  and  sings  to  the  music — a  popular  tune, 
ragtime.  It  is  a  serenade.  I  have  seen  a  young  Frenchman  lean 
above  the  piano  and  looking  down  speak  gently  and  wonder- 
ingly  to  one  of  our  girls  singing  such  a  serenade.  She  did  not 
seem  aware  of  what  she  was  singing  and  he  smiled  an  occult  but 
thoroughly  bewildered  smile — as  of  a  man  waiting  for  a  fog  to 
lift,  meanwhile  lost  in  admiration  of  its  enveloping  beauty — frag 
ments  of  architecture,  a  street  opening  and  closing,  a  mysterious 
glow  of  sunshine. 

VIII.  No.  i.  A  man  of  note  upon  examining  the  poems  of 
his  friend  and  finding  there  nothing  related  to  his  immediate  un 
derstanding  laughingly  remarked:  After  all,  literature  is  com 
munication  while  you,  my  friend,  I  am  afraid,  in  attempting  to  do 
something  striking,  are  in  danger  of  achieving  mere  presciosity. 
But  inasmuch  as  the  fields  of  the  mind  are  vast  and  little  ex 
plored,  the  poet  was  inclined  only  to  smile  and  to  take  note  of  that 


24  PROLOGUE 


hardening  infirmity  of  the  imagination  which  seems  to  endow  its 
victim  with  great  solidity  and  rapidity  of  judgment.  But  he 
thought  to  himself :  And  yet  of  what  other  thing  is  greatness  com 
posed  than  a  power  to  annihilate  half-truths  for  a  thousandth  part 
of  accurate  understanding.  Later  life  has  its  perfections  as  well 
as  that  bough-bending  time  of  the  mind's  florescence  with  which  I 
am  so  discursively  taken. 

I  have  discovered  that  the  thrill  of  first  love  passes !  It  even 
becomes  the  backbone  of  a  sordid  sort  of  religion  if  not  assisted 
in  passing.  I  knew  a  man  who  kept  a  candle  burning  before  a 
girl's  portrait  day  and  night  for  a  year — then  jilted  her, 
pawned  her  off  on  a  friend.  I  have  been  reasonably  frank  about 
my  erotics  with  my  wife.  I  have  never  or  seldom  said,  my  dear 
I  love  you,  when  I  would  rather  say:  My  dear,  I  wish  you 
were  in  Tierra  del  Fuego.  I  have  discovered  by  scrupulous 
attention  to  this  detail  and  by  certain  allied  experiments  that  we 
can  continue  from  time  to  time  to  elaborate  relationships  quite 
equal  in  quality,  if  not  greatly  superior,  to  that  surrounding  our 
wedding.  In  fact,  the  best  we  have  enjoyed  of  love  together  has 
come  after  the  most  thorough  destruction  or  harvesting  of  that 
which  has  gone  before.  Periods  of  barrenness  have  intervened, 
periods  comparable  to  the  prison  music  in  Fidelio  or  to  any  of 
Beethoven's  pianissimo  transition  passages.  It  is  at  these  times 
our  formal  relations  have  teetered  on  the  edge  of  a  debacle  to  be 
followed,  as  our  imaginations  have  permitted,  by  a  new  growth 
of  passionate  attachment  dissimilar  in  every  member  to  that  which 
has  gone  before. 

It  is  in  the  continual  and  violent  refreshing  of  the  idea  that 
love  and  good  writing  have  their  security. 

Alfred  Kreymborg  is  primarily  a  musician,  at  best  an  inno 
vator  of  musical  phrase: 

We  have  no  dishes 
to  eat  our  meals  from. 
We  have  no  dishes 
to  eat  our  meals  from 
because  we  have  no  dishes 
to  eat  our  meals  from 


PROLOGUE  25 


We  need  no  dishes 
to  eat  our  meals  from, 
we  have  fingers 
to  eat  our  meals  from. 

Kreymborg's  idea  of  poetry  is  a  transforming  music  that  has 
much  to  do  with  tawdry  things. 

Few  people  know  how  to  read  Kreymborg.  There  is  no 
modern  poet  who  suffers  more  from  a  bastard  sentimental  appre 
ciation.  It  is  hard  to  get  his  things  from  the  page.  I  have  heard 
him  say  he  has  often  thought  in  despair  of  marking  his  verse 
into  measures  as  music  is  marked.  Oh,  well— 

The  man  has  a  bare  irony,  the  gift  of  rhythm  and  Others.  I 
smile  to  think  of  Alfred  stealing  the  stamps  from  the  envelopes 
sent  for  return  of  MSS.  to  the  Others  office !  The  best  thing  that 
could  happen  for  the  good  of  poetry  in  the  United  States  today 
would  be  for  someone  to  give  Alfred  Kreymborg  a  hundred 
thousand  dollars.  In  his  mind  there  is  the  determination  for 
freedom  brought  into  relief  by  a  crabbedness  of  temper  that 
makes  him  peculiarly  able  to  value  what  is  being  done  here. 
Whether  he  is  bull  enough  for  the  work  I  am  not  certain,  but  that 
he  can  find  his  way  that  I  know. 

A  somewhat  petulant  English  college  friend  of  my  brother's 
once  remarked  that  Britons  make  the  best  policemen  the  world 
has  ever  witnessed.  I  agree  with  him.  It  is  silly  to  go  into  a 
puckersnatch  because  some  brass-button-minded  nincompoop  in 
Kensington  flies  off  the  handle  and  speaks  openly  about  our 
United  States  prize  poems.  This  Mr.  Jepson — "Anyone  who  has 
heard  Mr.  J.  read  Homer  and  discourse  on  Catullus  would 
recognize  his  fitness  as  a  judge  and  respecter  of  poetry" — this 
is  Ezra ! — this  champion  of  the  right  is  not  half  a  fool.  His 
epithets  and  phrases — slip-shod,  rank  bad  workmanship  of  a  man 
who  has  shirked  his  job,  lumbering  fakement,  cumbrous  arti 
ficiality,  maundering  dribble,  rancid  as  Ben  Hur — are  in  the  main 
well-merited.  And  besides,  he  comes  out  with  one  fairly  lipped 
cornet  blast:  the  only  distinctive  U.  S.  contributions  to  the  arts 
have  been  ragtime  and  buck-dancing. 

Nothing  is  good  save  the  new.  If  a  thing  have  novelty  it 
stands  intrinsically  beside  every  other  work  of  artistic  excellence. 
If  it  have  not  that,  no  loveliness  or  heroic  proportion  or  grand 


26  PROLOGUE 


manner  will  save  it.  It  will  not  be  saved  above  all  by  an  attenu 
ated  intellectuality. 

But  all  U.  S.  verse  is  not  bad  according  to  Mr.  J.,  there  is 
T.  S.  Eliot  and  his,  Love  Song  of  J.  Alfred  Prufrock. 

But  our  prize  poems  are  especially  to  be  damned  not  because 
of  superficial  bad  workmanship,  but  because  they  are  rehash, 
repetition — just  as  Eliot's  more  exquisite  work  is  rehash, 
repetition  in  another  way  of  Verlaine,  Beaudelaire,  Maeter 
linck, — conscious  or  unconscious, — just  as  there  were  Pound's 
early  paraphrases  from  Yeats  and  his  constant  later  cribbing 
from  the  renaissance,  Provence  and  the  modern  French:  Men 
content  with  the  connotations  of  their  masters. 

It  is  convenient  to  have  fixed  standards  of  comparison:  All 
antiquity!  And  there  is  always  some  everlasting  Polonius  of 
Kensington  forever  to  rate  highly  his  eternal  Eliot.  It  is  because 
Eliot  is  a  subtle  conformist.  It  tickles  the  palate  of  this  arch 
bishop  of  procurers  to  a  lecherous  antiquity  to  hold  up  Prufrock 
as  a  New  World  type.  Prufrock,  the  nibbler  at  sophistication, 
endemic  in  every  capital,  the  not  quite  (because  he  refuses  to 
turn  his  back),  is  "the  soul  of  that  modern  land,"  the  United 
States ! 

Blue  undershirts, 

Upon  a  line, 

It  is  not  secessary  to  say  to  you 

Anything  about  it — 

I  cannot  question  Eliot's  observation.  Prufrock  is  a  masterly 
portrait  of  the  man  just  below  the  summit,  but  the  type  is  univer 
sal  ;  the  model  in  his  case  might  be  Mr.  J. 

No.  The  New  World  is  Montezuma  or  since  he  was  stoned 
to  death  in  a  parley,  Guatemozin  who  had  the  city  of  Mexico 
levelled  over  him  before  he  was  taken. 

For  the  rest,  there  is  no  man  even  though  he  dare  who  can 
make  beauty  his  own  and  "so  at  last  live,"  at  least  there  is  no 
man  better  situated  for  that  achievement  than  another.  As  Pru 
frock  longed  for  his  silly  lady  so  Kensington  longs  for  its  Har- 
danger  dairymaid.  By  a  mere  twist  of  the  imagination,  if  Pru 
frock  only  knew  it,  the  whole  world  can  be  inverted  (why  else  are 
there  wars?)  and  the  mermaids  be  set  warbling  to  whoever  will 
listen  to  them.  Seesaw  and  blind-man's-buff  converted  into  a 
sort  of  football. 


PROLOGUE  27 


But  the  summit  of  United  States  achievement,  according  to 
Mr.  J. — who  can  discourse  on  Catullus — is  that  very  beautiful 
poem  of  Eliot's,  La  Figlia  Que  Piange :  just  the  right  amount  of 
everything  drained  through,  etc.,  etc.,  etc.,  etc.,  the  rhythm 
delicately  studied  and — IT  CONFORMS !  ergo  here  we  have 
"the  very  fine  flower  of  the  finest  spirit  of  the  United  States." 

Examined  closely  this  poem  reveals  a  highly  refined  distilla 
tion.  Added  to  the  already  "faithless"  formula  of  yesterday  we 
have  a  conscious  simplicity: 

Simple  and  faithless  as  a  smile  and  shake  of  the  hand. 

The  perfection  of  that  line  is  beyond  cavil.  Yet,  in  the  last 
stanza,  this  paradigm,  this  very  fine  flower  of  U.  S.  art  is  warped 
out  of  alignment,  obscured  in  meaning  even  to  the  point  of  an 
absolute  unintelligibility  by  the  inevitable  straining  after  a  rhyme, 
the  very  cleverness  with  which  this  straining  is  covered  being  a 
sinister  token  in  itself. 

And  I  wonder  how  they  should  have  been  together ! 

So  we  have  no  choice  but  to  accept  the  work  of  this  fumbling 
conjurer. 

Upon  the  Jepson  filet  Eliot  balances  his  mushroom.  It  is  the 
latest  touch  from  the  literary  cuisine,  it  adds  to  the  pleasant  out 
look  from  the  club  window.  If  to  do  this,  if  to  be  a  Whistler  at 
best,  in  the  art  of  poetry,  is  to  reach  the  height  of  poetic  expres 
sion  then  Ezra  and  Eliot  have  approached  it  and  tant  pis  for  the 
rest  of  us. 

The  Adobe  Indian  hag  sings  her  lullaby : 

The  beetle  is  blind 
The  beetle  is  blind 
The  beetle  is  blind 
The  beetle  is  blind,  etc.,  etc. 

and  Kandinsky  in  his,  Ueber  das  Geistige  in  der  Kitnst,  sets  down 
the  following  axioms  for  the  artist :  . 

Every  artist  has  to  express  himself 
Every  artist  has  to  express  his  epoch. 
Every  artist  has  to  express  the  pure  and  eternal 
qualities  of  the  art  of  all  men. 


28 PROLOGUE 

So  we  have  the  fish  and  the  bait,  but  the  last  rule  holds  three  hooks 
at  once — not  for  the  fish,  however. 

I  do  not  overlook  De  Gourmont's  plea  for  a  meeting  of  the 
nations,  but  I  do  believe  that  when  they  meet  Paris  will  be  more 
than  slightly  abashed  to  find  parodies  of  the  middle  ages,  Dante 
and  Langue  D'Oc  foisted  upon  it  as  the  best  in  United  States 
poetry.  Even  Eliot,  who  is  too  fine  an  artist  to  allow  himself 
to  be  exploited  by  a  blockheaded  grammaticaster,  turns  recently 
toward  "one  definite  false  note"  in  his  quatrains,  which  more 
nearly  approach  America  than  ever  La  Figlia  Que  Piange  did. 
Ezra  Pound  is  a  Boscan  who  has  met  his  Navagiero. 

One  day  Ezra  and  I  were  walking  down  a  back  lane  in 
Wyncote.  I  contended  for  bread,  he  for  caviar.  I  become  hot. 
He,  with  fine  discretion,  exclaimed:  "Let  us  drop  it.  We  will 
never  agree,  or  come  to  an  agreement."  He  spoke  then  like  a 
Frenchman,  which  is  one  who  discerns. 

Imagine  an  international  congress  of  poets  at  Paris  or  Ver 
sailles,  Remy  de  Gourmont  (now  dead)  presiding,  poets  all 
speaking  five  languages  fluently.  Ezra  stands  up  to  represent 
U.  S.  verse  and  De  Gourmont  sits  down  smiling.  Ezra  begins  by 
reading,  La  Figlia  Que  Piange.  It  would  be  a  pretty  pastime  to 
gather  into  a  mental  basket  the  fruits  of  that  reading  from  the 
minds  of  the  ten  Frenchmen  present;  their  impressions  of  the 
sort  of  United  States  that  very  fine  flower  was  picked  from. 
After  this  Kreymborg  might  push  his  way  to  the  front  and  read 
Jack's  House. 

E.  P.  is  the  best  enemy  United  States  verse  has.  He  is 
interested,  passionately  interested — even  if  he  doesn't  know  what 
he  is  talking  about.  But  of  course  he  does  know  what  he  is  talking 
about.  He  does  not,  however,  know  everything,  not  by  more 
than  half.  The  accordances  of  which  Americans  have  the  parts 
and  the  colors  but  not  the  completions  before  them  pass  beyond 
the  attempts  of  his  thought.  It  is  a  middle  aging  blight  of  the 
imagination. 

I  praise  those  who  have  the  wit  and  courage,  and  the  con 
ventionality,  to  go  direct  toward  their  vision  of  perfection  in  an 
objective  world  where  the  sign-posts  are  clearly  marked,  viz.,  to 
London.  But  confine  them  in  hell  for  their  paretic  assumption 
that  there  is  no  alternative  but  their  own  groove. 

Dear  fat  Stevens,  thawing  out  so  beautifully  at  forty!  I 
was  one  day  irately  damning  those  who  run  to  London  when 


PROLOGUE  29 


Stevens  caught  me  up  with  his  mild:  "But  where  in  the  world 
will  you  have  them  run  to?" 

Nothing  that  I  should  write  touching  poetry  would  be  com 
plete  without  Maxwell  Bodenheim  in  it,  even  had  he  not  said 
that  the  Improvisations  were  "perfect,"  the  best  thngs  I  had  ever 
done ;  for  that  I  place  him,  Janus,  first  and  last. 

Bodenheim  pretends  to  hate  most  people,  including  Pound 
and  Kreymborg,  but  that  he  really  goes  to  this  trouble  I  cannot 
imagine.  He  seems  rather  to  me  to  have  the  virtue  of  self  ab- 
sorbtion  so  fully  developed  that  hate  is  made  impossible.  Due  to 
this,  also,  he  is  an  unbelievable  physical  stoic.  I  know  of  no  one 
who  lives  so  completely  in  his  pretences  as  Bogie  does.  -  Having 
formulated  his  world  neither  toothache  nor  the  misery  to  which 
his  indolence  reduces  him  can  make  head  against  the  force  of  his 
imagination.  Because  of  this  he  remains  for  me  a  heroic  figure, 
which,  after  all,  is  quite  apart  from  the  stuff  he  writes  and  which 
only  concerns  him.  He  is  an  Isaiah  of  the  butterflies. 

Bogie  was  the  young  and  fairly  well  acclaimed  genius  when 
he  came  to  New  York  four  years  ago.  He  pretended  to  have 
fallen  in  Chicago  and  to  have  sprained  his  shoulder.  The  joint 
was  done  up  in  a  proper  Sayre's  dressing  and  there  really  looked 
to  be  a  bona  fide  injury.  Of  course  he  couldn't  find  any  work  to 
do  with  one  hand  so  we  all  chipped  in.  It  lasted  a  month! 
During  that  time  Bogie  spent  a  week  at  my  house  at  no  small 
inconvenience  to  Florence,  who  had  two  babies  on  her  hands 
just  then.  When  he  left  I  expressed  my  pleasure  at  having  had 
his  company.  "Yes,"  he  replied,  "I  think  you  have  profited  by 
my  visit."  The  statement  impressed  me  by  its  simple  accuracy  as 
well  as  by  the  evidence  it  bore  of  that  fullness  of  the  imagina 
tion  which  had  held  the  man  in  its  tide  while  we  had  been 
together. 

Charlie  Demuth  once  told  me  that  he  did  not  like  the  taste  of 
liquor,  for  which  he  was  thankful,  but  that  he  found  the  effect  it 
had  on  his  mind  to  be  delightful.  Of  course  Li  Po  is  reported  to 
have  written  his  best  verse  supported  in  the  arms  of  the  Emper 
or's  attendants  and  with  a  dancing-girl  to  hold  his  tablet.  He 
was  also  a  great  poet.  Wine  is  merely  the  latchstring. 

The  virtue  of  it  all  is  in  an  opening  of  the  doors,  though 
some  rooms  of  course  will  be  empty,  a  break  with  banality,  the 
continual  hardening  which  habit  enforces.  There  is  nothing  left 


30  PROLOGUE 


in  me  but  the  virtue  of  curiosity,  Demuth  puts  in.     The  poet 
should  be  forever  at  the  ship's  prow. 

An  acrobat  seldom  learns  really  a  new  trick,  but  he  must 
exercise  continually  to  keep  his  joints  free.  When  I  made  this 
discovery  it  started  rings  in  my  memory  that  keep  following  one 
after  the  other  to  this  day. 

I  have  placed  the  following  Improvisations  in  groups,  some 
what  after  the  A.  B.  A.  formula,  that  one  may  support  the  other, 
clarifying  or  enforcing  perhaps  the  other's  intention. 

The  arrangement  of  the  notes,  each  following  its  poem  and 
separated  from  it  by  a  ruled  line,  is  borrowed  from  a  small  volume 
of  Metastasio,  Vane  Poesie  Dell'  Abate  Pietro  Metastasio, 
Venice,  1795. 

September  i,  1918 


IMPROVISATIONS 


IMPROVISATIONS 


Fools  have  big  wombs.  For  the  rest? — here  is  pennyroyal 
if  one  knows  to  use  it.  But  time  is  only  another  liar,  so  go  along 
the  wall  a  little  further:  if  blackberries  prove  bitter  there'll  be 
mushrooms,  fairy- ring  mushrooms,  in  the  grass,  sweetest  of  all 
fungi. 

2 

For  what  it's  worth :  Jacob  Louslinger,  white  haired,  stinking, 
dirty  bearded,  cross  eyed,  stammer  tongued,  broken  voiced,  bent 
backed,  ball  kneed,  cave  bellied,  mucous  faced — deathling, — 
found  lying  in  the  weeds  "up  there  by  the  cemetery".  "Looks 
to  me  as  if  he'd  been  bumming  around  the  meadows  for  a  couple 
of  weeks".  Shoes  twisted  into  incredible  lilies:  out  at  the  toes, 
heels,  tops,  sides,  soles.  Meadow  flower!  ha,  mallow!  at  last  I 
have  you.  (Rot  dead  marigolds — an  acre  at  a  time!  Gold,  are 
you?)  Ha,  clouds  will  touch  world's  edge  and  the  great  pink 
mallow  stand  singly  in  the  wet,  topping  reeds  and — a  closet  full  of 
clothes  and  good  shoes  and  my-thirty-year's-master's-daughter's 
two  cows  for  me  to  care  for  and  a  winter  room  With  a  fire  in  it — . 
I  would  rather  feed  pigs  in  Moonachie  and  chew  calamus  root 
and  break  crab's  claws  at  an  open  fire:  age's  lust  loose! 

3 

Talk  as  you  will,  say:  "No  woman  wants  to  bother  with 
children  in  this  country"; — speak  of  your  Amsterdam  and  the 
whitest  aprons  and  brightest  doorknobs  in  Christendom.  And  I'll 
answer  you:  "Gleaming  doorknobs  and  scrubbed  entries  have 
heard  the  songs  of  the  housemaids  at  sun-up  and — housemaids 
are  wishes.  Whose?  Ha!  the  dark  canals  are  whistling, 

[33] 


34  IMPROVISATIONS 

whistling  for  who  will  cross  to  the  other  side.  If  I  remain  with 
hands  in  pocket  leaning  upon  my  lamppost — why — I  bring  curses 
to  a  hag's  lips  and  her  daughter  on  her  arm  knows  better  than  I 
can  tell  you — best  to  blush  and  out  with  it  than  back  beaten  after. 


In  Holland  at  daybreak,  of  a  fine  spring  morning,  one  sees  the 
housemaids  beating  rugs  before  the  small  houses  of  such  a  city  as 
Amsterdam,  sweeping,  scrubbing  the  low  entry  steps  and  polishing 
doorbells  and  doorknobs.  By  night  perhaps  there  will  be  an  old 
woman  with  a  girl  on  her  arm,  histing  and  whistling  across  a 
deserted  canal  to  some  late  loiterer  trudging  aimlessly  on  beneath 
the  gas  lamps. 


IMPROVISATIONS  35 


II. 


i 


Why  go  further?  One  might  conceivably  rectify  the  rhythm, 
study  all  out  and  arrive  at  the  perfection  of  a  tiger  lily  or  a  china 
doorknob.  One  might  lift  all  out  of  the  ruck,  be  a  worthy 
successor  to — the  man  in  the  moon.  Instead  of  breaking  the 
back  of  a  willing  phrase  why  not  try  to  follow  the  wheel 
through — approach  death  at  a  walk,  take  in  all  the  scenery. 
There's  as  much  reason  one  way  as  the  other  and  then — one 
never  knows — perhaps  we'll  bring  back  Euridice — this  time! 


Between  two  contending  forces  there  may  at  all  times  arrive 
that  moment  when  the  stress  is  equal  on  both  sides  so  that  with  a 
great  pushing  a  great  stability  results  giving  a  picture  of  perfect 
rest.  And  so  it  may  be  that  once  upon  the  way  the  end  drives 
back  upon  the  beginning  and  a  stoppage  will  occur.  At  such  a 
time  the  poet  shrinks  from  the  doom  that  is  calling  him  forgetting 
the  delicate  rhythms  of  perfect  beauty,  preferring  in  his  mind  the 
gross  buffetings  of  good  and  evil  fortune. 

2 

Ay  dio!  I  could  say  so  much  were  it  not  for  the  tunes 
changing,  changing,  darting  so  many  ways.  One  step  and  the 
cart's  left  you  sprawling.  Here's  the  way !  and — you're  hip  bog 
ged.  And  there's  blame  of  the  light  too :  when  eyes  are  humming 
birds  who'll  tie  them  with  a  lead  string?  But  it's  the  tunes  they 
want  most, — send  them  skipping  out  at  the  tree  tops.  Whistle 
then!  who'ld  stop  the  leaves  swarming;  curving  down  the  east 
in  their  braided  jackets?  Well  enough — but  there's  small 
comfort  in  naked  branches  when  the  heart's  not  set  that  way. 


A  man's  desire  is  to  win  his  way  to  some  hilltop.  But  against 
him  seem  to  swarm  a  hundred  jumping  devils.  These  are  his 
constant  companions,  these  are  the  friendly  images  which  he  has 
invented  out  of  his  mind  and  which  are  inviting  him  to  rest  and 
to  disport  himself  according  to  hidden  reasons.  The  man  being 


36 IMPROVISATIONS  

half  a  poet  is  cast  down  and  longs  to  rid  himself  of  his  torment 
and  his  tormentors. 

3 

When  you  hang  your  clothes  on  the  line  you  do  not  expect  to 
see  the  line  broken  and  them  trailing  in  the  mud.  Nor  would 
you  expect  to  keep  your  hands  clean  by  putting  them  in  a  dirty 
pocket.  However  and  of  course  if  you  are  a  market  man,  fish, 
cheeses  and  the  like  going  under  your  fingers  every  minute  in  the 
hour  you  would  not  leave  off  the  business  and  expect  to  handle 
a  basket  of  fine  laces  without  at  least  mopping  yourself  on  a 
towel,  soiled  as  it  may  be.  Then  how  will  you  expect  a  fine 
trickle  of  words  to  follow  you  through  the  intimacies  of  this 
dance  without — oh,  come  let  us  walk  together  into  the  air  awhile 
first.  One  must  be  watchman  to  much  secret  arrogance  before 
his  ways  are  tuned  to  these  measures.  You  see  there  is  a  dip  of 
the  ground  between  us.  You  think  you  can  leap  up  from  your 
gross  caresses  of  these  creatures  and  at  a  gesture  fling  it  all  off 
and  step  out  in  silver  to  my  finger  tips.  Ah,  it  is  not  that  I  do 
not  wait  for  you,  always !  But  my  sweet  fellow — you  have  brok 
en  yourself  without  purpose,  you  are — Hark!  it  is  the  music! 
Whence  does  it  come?  What!  Out  of  the  ground?  Is  it  this 
that  you  have  been  preparing  for  me?  Ha,  goodbye,  I  have  a 
rendez  vous  in  the  tips  of  three  birch  sisters.  Encourage  vos 
musiciensl  Ask  them  to  play  faster.  I  will  return — later.  Ah 
you  are  kind.  — and  I  ?  must  dance  with  the  wind,  make  my  own 
snow  flakes,  whistle  a  contrapuntal  melody  to  my  own  fuge! 
Huzza  then,  this  is  the  dance  of  the  blue  moss  bank!  Huzza 
then,  this  is  the  mazurka  of  the  hollow  log!  Huzza  then,  this 
is  the  dance  of  rain  in  the  cold  trees. 


IMPROVISATIONS  37 


III. 


So  far  away  August  green  as  it  yet  is.  They  say  the  sun 
still  comes  up  o'mornings  and  it's  harvest  moon  now.  Always 
one  leaf  at  the  peak  twig  swirling,  swirling  and  apples  rotting  in 
the  ditch. 

2 

My  wife's  uncle  went  to  school  with  Amundsen.  After  he, 
Amundsen,  returned  from  the  south  pole  there  was  a  Scandinav 
ian  dinner,  which  bored  Amundsen  like  a  boyhood  friend.  There 
was  a  young  woman  at  his  table,  silent  and  aloof  from  the  rest. 
She  left  early  and  he  restless  at  some  impalpable  delay  apolo 
gized  suddenly  and  went  off  with  two  friends,  his  great,  lean  bulk 
twitching  agilely.  One  knew  why  the  poles  attracted  him. 
Then  my  wife's  mother  told  me  the  same  old  thing,  how  a  girl  in 
their  village  jilted  him  years  back^  But  the  girl  at  the  supper! 
Ah — that  comes  later  when  we  are  wiser  and  older. 

3 

What  can  it  mean  to  you  that  a  child  wears  pretty  clothes 
and  speaks  three  languages  or  that  its  mother  goes  to  the  best 
shops?  It  means:  July  has  good  need  of  his  blazing  sun.  But 
if  you  pick  one  berry  from  the  ash  tree  I'd  not  know  it  again  for 
the  same  no  matter  how  the  rain  washed.  Make  my  bed  of 
witchhazel  twigs,  said  the  old  man,  since  they  bloom  on  the  brink 
of  winter. 


There  is  neither  beginning  nor  end  to  the  imagination  but  it 
delights  in  its  own  seasons  reversing  the  usual  order  at  will. 
Of  the  air  of  the  coldest  room  it  will  seem  to  build  the  hottest 
passions.  Mozart  would  dance  with  his  wife,  whistling  his  own 
tune  to  keep  the  cold  away  and  Villon  ceased  to  write  upon  his 
Petit  Testament  only  when  the  ink  was  frozen.  But  men  in  the 
direst  poverty  of  the  imagination  buy  finery  and  indulge  in 
extravagant  moods  in  order  to  piece  out  their  lack  with  other 
matter. 


38  IMPROVISATIONS 


IV. 


Mamselle  Day,  Mamselle  Day,  come  back  again !  Slip  your 
clothes  off!  — the  jingling  of  those  little  shell  ornaments  so 
deftly  fastened — !  The  streets  are  turning  in  their  covers. 
They  smile  with  shut  eyes.  I  have  been  twice  to  the  moon  since 
supper  but  she  has  nothing  to  tell  me.  Mamselle  come  back! 
I  will  be  wiser  this  time. 


That  which  is  past  is  past  forever  and  no  power  of  the 
imagination  can  bring  it  back  again.  Yet  inasmuch  as  there 
are  many  lives  being  lived  in  the  world,  by  virtue  of  sadness  and 
regret  we  are  enabled  to  partake  to  some  small  degree  of  those 
pleasures  we  have  missed  or  lost  but  which  others  more  fortunate 
than  we  are  in  the  act  of  enjoying. 

If  one  should  catch  me  in  this  state!  —wings  would  go  at 
a  bargain.  Ah  but  to  hold  the  world  in  the  hand  then —  Here's 
a  brutal  jumble.  And  if  you  move  the  stones,  see  the  ants  scurry. 
But  it's  queen's  eggs  they  take  first,  tax  their  jaws  most.  Burrow, 
burrow,  burrow!  there's  sky  that  way  too  if  the  pit's  deep 
enough — so  the  stars  tell  us. 


It  is  an  obsession  of  the  gifted  that  by  direct  onslaught  or 
by  some  back  road  of  the  intention  they  will  win  the  recognition 
of  the  world.  Cezanne.  And  inasmuch  as  some  men  have  had  a 
bare  recognition  in  their  lives  the  fiction  is  continued.  But  the 
sad  truth  is  that  since  the  imagination  is  nothing,  nothing  will 
come  of  it.  Thus  those  necessary  readjustments  of  sense  which 
are  the  everyday  affair  of  the  mind  are  distorted  and  intensified  in 
these  individuals  so  that  they  frequently  believe  themselves  to  be 
the  very  helots  of  fortune,  whereas  nothing  could  be  more  ridicu 
lous  than  to  suppose  this.  However  their  strength  will  revive  if 
it  may  be  and  finding  a  sweetness  on  the  tongue  of  which  they  had 
no  foreknowledge  they  set  to  work  again  with  renewed  vigor. 


IMPROVISATIONS  39 


How  smoothly  the  car  runs.  And  these  rows  of  celery,  how 
they  bitter  the  air — winter's  authentic  foretaste.  Here  among 
these  farms  how  the  year  has  aged,  yet  here's  last  year  and  the 
year  before  and  all  years.  One  might  rest  here  time  without  end, 
watch  out  his  stretch  and  see  no  other  bending  than  spring  to 
autumn,  winter  to  summer  and  earth  turning  into  leaves  and 
leaves  into  earth  and — how  restful  these  long  beet  rows- — the 
caress  of  the  low  clouds — the  river  lapping  at  the  reeds.  Was  it 
ever  so  high  as  this,  so  full?  How  quickly  we've  come  this  far. 
Which  way  is  north  now?  North  now?  why  that  way  I  think. 
Ah  there's  the  house  at  last,  here's  April,  but — the  blinds  are 
down !  It's  all  dark  here.  Scratch  a  hurried  note.  Slip  it  over 
the  sill.  Well,  some  other  time. 


How  smoothly  the  car  runs.  This  must  be  the  road.  Queer 
how  a  road  juts  in.  How  the  dark  catches  among  those  trees! 
How  the  light  clings  to  the  canal !  Yes  there's  one  table  taken, 
we'll  not  be  alone  This  place  has  possibilities.  Will  you  bring 
her  here?  Perhaps — and  when  we  meet  on  the  stair,  shall  we 
speak,  say  it  is  some  acquaintance — or  pass  silent?  Well,  a  jest's 
a  jest  but  how  poor  this  tea  is.  Think  of  a  life  in  this  place, 
here  in  these  hills  by  these  truck  farms.  Whose  life?  Why 
there,  back  of  you.  If  a  woman  laughs  a  little  loudly  one  always 
thinks  that  way  of  her.  But  how  she  bedizens  the  country-side. 
Quite  an  old  world  glamour.  If  it  were  not  for — but  one  cannot 
have  everything.  What  poor  tea  it  was.  How  cold  it's  grown. 
Cheering,  a  light  is  that  way  among  the  trees.  That  heavy 
laugh !  How  it  will  rattle  these  branches  in  six  week's  time. 


The  frontispiece  is  her  portrait  and  further  on — the  obituary 
sermon:  she  held  the  school  upon  her  shoulders.  Did  she. 
Well — turn  in  here  then : — we  found  money  in  the  blood  and  some 
in  the  room  and  on  the  stairs.  My  God  I  never  knew  a  man  had 
so  much  blood  in  his  head!  — and  thirteen  empty  whisky 
bottles.  I  am  sorry  but  those  who  come  this  way  meet  strange 
company.  This  is  you  see  death's  canticle. 


40 IMPROVISATIONS 

A  young  woman  who  had  excelled  at  intellectual  pursuits, 
a  person  of  great  power  in  her  sphere,  died  on  the  same  night 
that  a  man  was  murdered  in  the  next  street,  a  fellow  of  very 
gross  behavior.  The  poet  takes  advantage  of  this  to  send  them 
on  their  way  side  by  side  without  making  the  usual  unhappy 
moral  distinctions. 


IMPROVISATIONS  41 


V. 


Beautiful  white  corpse  of  night  actually!  So  the  north-west 
winds  ox  death  are  mountain  sweet  after  all!  All  the  troubled 
stars  are  put  to  bed  now:  three  bullets  from  wife's  hand  none 
kindlier :  in  the  crown,  in  the  nape  and  one  lower :  three  starlike 
holes  among  a  million  pocky  pores  and  the  moon  of  your  mouth : 
Venus,  Jupiter,  Mars,  and  all  stars  melted  forthwith  into  this 
one  good  white  light  over  the  inquest  table, — the  traditional  moth 
beating  its  wings  against  it — except  there  are  two  here.  But 
sweetest  are  the  caresses  of  the  county  physician,  a  little  clumsy 
perhaps — mais — !  and  the  Prosecuting  Attorney,  Peter  Valuzzi 
and  the  others,  waving  green  arms  of  maples  to  the  tinkling  of 
the  earliest  ragpicker's  bells.  Otherwise — :  kindly  stupid  hands, 
kindly  coarse  voices,  infinitely  soothing,  infinitely  detached, 
infinitely  beside  the  question,  restfully  babbling  of  how,  v/here, 
why  and  night  is  done  and  the  green  edge  of  yesterday  has 
said  all  it  could. 


Remorse  is  a  virtue  in  that  it  is  a  stirrer  up  of  the  emotions 
but  it  is  a  folly  to  accept  it  as  a  criticism  of  conduct.  So  to 
accept  it  is  to  attempt  to  fit  the  emotions  of  a  certain  state  to  a 
preceding  state  to  which  they  are  in  no  way  related.  Imagina 
tion  though  it  cannot  wipe  out  the  sting  of  remorse  can  instruct 
the  mind  in  its  proper  uses. 

2 

It  is  the  water  we  drink.  It  bubbles  under  every  hill.  How  ? 
Agh,  you  stop  short  of  the  root.  Why,  caught  and  the  town  goes 
mad.  The  haggard  husband  pirouettes  in  tights.  The  wolf-lean 
wife  is  rolling  butter  pats :  it's  a  clock  striking  the  hour.  Pshaw, 
they  do  things  better  in  Bangkok, — here  too,  if  there's  heads 
together.  But  up  and  leap  at  her  throat!  Bed's  at  fault! 
Yet — I've  seen  three  women  prostrate,  hands  twisted  in  each 
other's  hair,  teeth  buried  where  the  hold  offered, — not  a  move 
ment,  not  a  cry  more  than  a  low  meowling.  Oh  call  me  a  lady 
and  think  you've  caged  me.  Hell's  loose  every  minute,  you  hear? 
And  the  truth  is  there's  not  an  eye  clapped  to  either  way  but 
someone  comes  off  the  dirtier  for  it.  Who  am  I  to  wash  hands 


42 IMPROVISATIONS 

and  stand  near  the  wall?  I  confess  freely  there's  not  a  bitch 
littered  in  the  pound  but  my  skin  grows  ruddier.  Ask  me  and 
I'll  say:  curfew  for  the  ladies.  Bah,  two  in  the  grass  is  the 
answer  to  that  gesture.  Here's  a  text  for  you :  Many  daughters 
have  done  virtuously  but  thou  excellest  them  all!  And  so  you 
do,  if  the  manner  of  a  walk  means  anything.  You  walk  in  a 
different  nir  from  the  others, — though  your  husband's  the  better 
man  and  the  charm  wont  last  a  fortnight :  the  street's  kiss  par 
ried  again.  But  give  thought  to  your  daughters'  food  at  mating 
time,  you  good  men.  Send  them  to  hunt  spring  beauties  beneath 
the  sod  this  winter, — otherwise:  hats  off  to  the  lady!  One  can 
afford  to  smile. 


Marry  in  middle  life  and  take  the  young  thing  home.  Later 
in  the  year  let  the  worst  out.  It's  odd  how  little  the  tune  changes. 
Do  worse — till  your  mind's  turning,  then  rush  into  repentence 
and  the  lady  grown  a  hero  while  the  clock  strikes. 

Here  the  harps  have  a  short  cadenza.  It's  sunset  back  of 
the  new  cathedral  and  the  purple  river  scum  has  set  seaward. 
The  car's  at  the  door.  I'd  not  like  to  go  alone  tonight.  I'll  pay 
you  well.  It's  the  kings-evil.  Speed!  Speed!  The  sun's 
self's  a  chancre  low  in  the  west  Ha,  how  the  great  houses  shine 
— for  old  time's  sake!  For  sale!  For  sale!  The  town's  gone 
another  way.  But  I'm  not  fooled  that  easily.  Fort  sale!  Fort 
sale!  if  you  read  it  aright.  And  Beauty's  own  head  on  the 
pillow,  a  la  Muja  Desnuda!  O  Contessa  de  Alba!  Contessa  de 
Alba!  Never  was  there  such  a  lewd  wonder  in  the  streets  of 
Newark!  Open  the  windows — but  all's  boarded  up  here.  Out 
with  you,  you  sleepy  doctors  and  lawyers  you, — the  sky's  afire 
and  Calvary  Church  with  its  snail's  horns  up,  sniffing  the  dawn — 
o'  the  wrong  side !  Let  the  trumpets  blare !  Tutti  i  instrument^! 
The  world's  bound  homeward. 


A  man  whose  brain  is  slowly  curdling  due  to  a  syphilitic 
infection  acquired  in  early  life  calls  on  a  friend  to  go  with  him  on 
a  journey  to  the  city.  The  friend  out  of  compassion  goes,  and, 
thinking  of  the  condition  of  his  unhappy  companion,  falls  to 
pondering  on  the  sights  he  sees  as  he  is  driven  up  one  street  and 


_____ IMPROVISATIONS      43 

down  another.  It  being  evening  he  witnesses  a  dawn  of  great 
beauty  striking  backward  upon  the  world  in  a  reverse  direction 
to  the  sun's  course  and  not  knowing  of  what  else  to  think  discov 
ers  it  to  be  the  same  power  which  has  led  his  companion  to 
destruction.  At  this  he  is  inclined  to  scoff  derisively  at  the  city's 
prone  stupidity  and  to  make  light  indeed  of  his  friend's  misfor 
tune. 


44  IMPROVISATIONS 


VI. 


Of  course  history  is  an  attempt  to  make  the  past  seem  stable 
and  of  course  it's  all  a  lie.  Nero  must  mean  Nero  or  the  game's 
up.  But  —  though  killies  have  green  backs  and  white  bellies,  zut  ! 
for  the  bass  and  hawks  !  When  we've  tired  of  swimming  we'll 
go  climb  in  the  ledgy  forest.  Confute  the  sages. 


Quarrel  with  a  purple  hanging  because  it's  no  column  from 
the  Parthenon.  Here's  splotchy  velvet  set  to  hide  a  door  in  the 
wall  and  there  —  there's  the  man  himself  praying!  Oh  quarrel 
whether  'twas  Pope  Clement  raped  Persephone  or  —  did  the  devil 
wear  a  mitre  in  that  year?  Come,  there's  much  use  in  being  thin 
on  a  windy  day  if  the  cloth's  cut  well.  And  oak  leaves  will  not 
come  on  maples,  nor  birch  trees  either  —  that  is  provided  —  ,  but 
pass  it  over,  pass  it  over. 


A  woman  of  good  figure,  if  she  be  young  and  gay,  welcomes 
the  wind  that  presses  tight  upon  her  from  forehead  to  ankles 
revealing  the  impatient  mountains  and  valleys  of  her  secret 
desire.  The  wind  brings  release  to  her.  But  the  wind  is  no 
blessing  to  all  women.  At  the  same  time  it  is  idle  to  quarrel 
over  the  relative  merits  of  one  thing  and  another,  oak  leaves 
will  not  come  on  maples.  But  there  is  a  deeper  folly  yet  in  such 
quarreling:  the  perfections  revealed  by  a  Rembrandt  are  equal 
whether  it  be  question  of  a  laughing  Saskia  or  an  old  woman 
cleaning  her  nails. 

3 

Think  of  some  lady  better  than  Rackham  draws  them :  mere 
fairy  stuff — some  face  that  would  be  your  face,  were  you  of  the 
right  sex,  some  twenty  years  back  of  a  still  morning,  some 
Lucretia  out  of  the  Vatican  turned  Carmelite,  some  double  image 
cast  over  a  Titian  Venus  by  two  eyes  quicker  than  Titian's  hands 
were,  some  strange  daughter  of  an  inn-keeper, — some  .  .  .  Call 
it  a  net  to  catch  love's  twin  doves  and  I'll  say  to  you:  Look! 


IMPROVISATIONS 45 

and  there'll   be  the  sky  there   and  you'll   say   the   sky's   blue. 
Whisk  the  thing  away  now?     What's  the  sky  now? 


By  virtue  of  works  of  art  the  beauty  of  woman  is  released 
to  flow  whither  it  will  up  and  down  the  years.  The  imagination 
transcends  the  thing  itself.  Kaffirs  admire  what  they  term 
beauty  in  their  women  but  which  is  in  official  parlance  a  deform 
ity.  A  Kaffir  poet  to  be  a  good  poet  would  praise  that  which  is 
to  him  praiseworthy  and  we  should  be  scandalized. 


46  IMPROVISATIONS 


VII. 


It  is  still  warm  enough  to  slip  from  the  weeds  into  the  lake's 
edge,  your  clothes  blushing  in  the  grass  and  three  small  boys 
grinning  behind  the  derelict  hearth's  side.  But  summer  is  up 
among  the  huckleberries  near  the  path's  end  and  snakes'  eggs  lie 
curling  in  the  sun  on  the  lonely  summit.  But — well — let's  wish 
it  were  higher  after  all  these  years  staring  at  it  deplore  the 
paunched  clouds  glimpse  the  sky's  thin  counter-crest  and  plunge 
into  the  gulch.  Sticky  cobwebs  tell  of  feverish  midnights. 
Crack  a  rock  (what's  a  thousand  years!)  and  send  it  crashing 
among  the  oaks!  Wind  a  pine  tree  in  a  grey-worm's  net  and 
play  it  for  a  trout ;  oh — but  it's  the  moon  does  that !  No,  summer 
has  gone  down  the  other  side  of  the  mountain.  Carry  home  what 
we  can.  What  have  you  brought  off?  Ah  here  are  thimble- 
berries. 


In  middle  life  the  mind  passes  to  a  variegated  October. 
This  is  the  time  youth  in  its  faulty  aspirations  has  set  for  the 
achievement  of  great  summits.  But  having  attained  the  mount 
ain  top  one  is  not  snatched  into  a  cloud  but  the  descent  proffers 
its  blandishments  quite  as  a  matter  of  course.  At  this  the  fellow 
is  cast  into  a  great  confusion  and  rather  plaintively  looks  about 
to  see  if  any  has  fared  better  than  he. 


The  little  Polish  Father  of  Kingsland  does  not  understand, 
he  cannot  understand.  These  are  exquisite  differences  never  to 
be  resolved.  He  comes  at  midnight  through  mid-winter  slush 
to  baptise  a  dying  newborn;  he  smiles  suavely  and  shruggs  his 
shoulders :  a  clear  middle  A  touched  by  a  master — but  he  cannot 
understand.  And  Benny,  Sharon,  Henrietta,  and  Josephine,  what 
is  it  to  them?  Yet  jointly  they  come  more  into  the  way  of  the 
music.  And  white  haired  Miss  Ball!  The  empty  school  is 
humming  to  her  little  melody  played  with  one  finger  at  the  noon 
hour  but  it  is  beyond  them  all.  There  is  much  heavy  breathing, 
many  tight  shut  lips,  a  smothered  laugh  whiles,  two  laughs  crack- 


IMPROVISATIONS 47 

ing  together,  three  together  sometimes  and  then  a  burst  of  wind 
lifting  the  dust  again. 


Living  with  and  upon  and  among  the  poor,  those  that  gather 
in  a  few  rooms,  sometimes  very  clean,  sometimes  full  of  vermine, 
there  are  certain  pestilential  individuals,  priests,  school  teachers, 
doctors,  commercial  agents  of  one  sort  or  another  who  though 
they  themselves  are  full  of  graceful  perfections  nevertheless  con 
trive  to  be  so  complacent  of  their  lot,  floating  as  they  are  with  the 
depth  of  a  sea  beneath  them,  as  to  be  worthy  only  of  amused 
contempt.  Yet  even  to  these  sometimes  there  rises  that  which  they 
think  in  their  ignorance  is  a  confused  babble  of  aspiring  voices  not 
knowing  what  ancient  harmonies  these  are  to  which  they  are  so 
faultily  listening. 


What  I  like  best's  the  long  unbroken  line  of  the  hills  there. 
Yes,  it's  a  good  view.  Come,  let's  visit  the  orchard.  Here's 
peaches  twenty  years  on  the  branch.  Not  ripe  yet!?  Why — ! 
Those  hills!  Those  hills!  But  you'ld  be  young  again!  Well, 
f ourteen's  a  hard  year  for  boy  or  girl,  let  alone  one  older  driving 
the  pricks  in,  but  though  there's  more  in  a  song  than  the  notes  of 
it  and  a  smile's  a  pretty  baby  when  you've  none  other — let's  not 
turn  backward.  Mumble  the  words,  you  understand,  call  them 
four  brothers,  strain  to  catch  the  sense  but  have  to  admit  it's  in  a 
language  they've  not  taught  you,  a  flaw  somewhere, — and  for 
answer :  well,  that  long  unbroken  line  of  the  hills  there. 


Two  people,  an  old  man  and  a  woman  in  early  middle  life,  are 
talking  together  upon  a  small  farm  at  which  the  woman  has  just 
arrived  on  a  visit.  They  have  walked  to  an  orchard  on  the  slope 
of  a  hill  from  which  a  distant  range  of  mountains  can  be  clearly 
made  out.  A  third  man,  piecing  together  certain  knowledge  he 
has  of  the  woman  with  what  is  being  said  before  him  is  prompted 
to  give  rein  to  his  imagination.  This  he  does  and  hears  many 
oblique  sentences  which  escape  the  others. 


48  IMPROVISATIONS 


Coda. 

Squalor  and  filth  with  a  sweet  cur  nestling  in  the  grimy 
blankets  of  your  bed  and  on  better  roads  striplings  dreaming  of 
wealth  and  happiness.  Country  life  in  America!  The  cackling 
grackle  that  dartled  at  the  hill's  bottom  have  joined  their  flock 
and  swing  with  the  rest  over  a  broken  roof  toward  Dixie. 


IMPROVISATIONS  49 


VIII. 


Some  fifteen  years  we'll  say  I  served  this  friend,  was  his 
valet,  nurse,  physician,  fool  and  master:  nothing  too  menial,  to 
say  the  least.  Enough  of  that:  so. 

Stand  aside  while  they  pass.  This  is  what  they  found  in  the 
rock  when  it  was  cracked  open:  this  fingernail.  Hide  your  face 
among  the  lower  leaves,  here's  a  meeting  should  have  led  to  better 
things  but — it  is  only  one  branch  out  of  the  forest  and  night 
pressing  you  for  an  answer!  Velvet  night  weighing  upon  your 
eye-balls  with  gentle  insistence ;  calling  you  away :  Come  with  me, 
now,  tonight !  Come  with  me !  now  tonight  .  . 


In  great  dudgeon  over  the  small  profit  that  has  come  to  him 
through  a  certain  companionship  a  poet  addresses  himself  and  the 
loved  one  as  if  it  were  two  strangers,  thus  advancing  himself  to 
the  brink  of  that  discovery  which  will  reward  all  his  labors  but 
which  he  as  yet  only  discerns  as  a  night,  a  dark  void  coaxing  him 
whither  he  has  no  knowledge. 

2 

You  speak  of  the  enormity  of  her  disease,  of  her  poverty. 
Bah,  these  are  the  fiddle  she  makes  tunes  on  and  it's  tunes  bring 
the  world  dancing  to  your  house-door,  even  on  this  swamp  side. 
You  speak  of  the  helpless  waiting,  waiting  till  the  thing  squeeze 
her  windpipe  shut.  Oh,  that's  best  of  all,  that's  romance — with 
the  devil  himself  a  hero.  No  my  boy.  You  speak  of  her  man's 
callous  stinginess.  Yes,  my  God,  how  can  he  refuse  to  buy  milk 
when  it's  alone  milk  that  she  can  swallow  now  ?  But  how  is  it  she 
picks  market  beans  for  him  day  in,  day  out,  in  the  sun,  in  the 
frost?  You  understand?  You  speak  of  so  many  things,  you 
blame  me  for  my  indifference.  Well,  this  is  you  see  my  sister 
and  death,  great  death  is  robbing  her  of  life.  It  dwarfs  most 
things. 


Filth  and  vermine  though  they  shock  the  over-nice  are  imper 
fections  of  the  flesh  closely  related  in  the  just  imagination  of  the 


50 IMPROVISATIONS 

poet  to  excessive  cleanliness.  After  some  years  of  varied  exper 
ience  with  the  bodies  of  the  rich  and  the  poor  a  man  finds  little  to 
distinguish  between  them,  bulks  them  as  one  and  bases  his  work 
ing  judgements  on  other  matters. 

3 

Hercules  is  in  Hacketstown  doing  farm  labor.  Look  at  his 
hands  if  you'll  not  believe  me.  And  what  do  I  care  if  yellow  and 
red  are  Spain's  riches  and  Spain's  good  blood.  Here  yellow  and 
red  mean  simply  autumn!  The  odor  of  the  poor  farmer's  fried 
supper  is  mixing  with  the  smell  of  the  hemlocks,  mist  is  in  the 
valley  hugging  the  ground  and  over  Parsippany — where  an  oldish 
man  leans  talking  to  a  young  woman — the  moon  is  swinging  from 
its  star. 


IMPROVISATIONS 51 


IX. 


Throw  that  flower  in  the  waste  basket,  it's  faded.  And  keep 
an  eye  to  your  shoes  and  fingernails.  The  fool  you  once  laughed 
at  has  made  a  fortune !  There's  small  help  in  a  clutter  of  leaves 
either,  no  matter  how  they  gleam.  Punctillio's  the  thing.  A 
nobby  vest.  Spats.  Lamps  carry  far,  believe  me,  in  lieu  of 
sunshine ! 


Despite  vastness  of  frontiers,  which  are  as  it  were  the  fringes 
of  a  flower  full  of  honey,  it  is  the  little  things  that  count! 
Neglect  them  and  bitterness  drowns  the  imagination. 


The  time  never  was  when  he  could  play  more  than  mattrass  to 
the  pretty  feet  of  this  woman  who  had  been  twice  a  mother  with 
out  touching  the  meager  pollen  of  their  marriage  intimacy.  What 
more  for  him  than  to  be  a  dandelion  that  could  chirp  with  crickets 
or  do  a  onestep  with  snow  flakes?  The  tune  is  difficult  but  not 
impossible  to  the  middle  aged  whose  knees  are  tethered  faster  to 
the  mind  than  they  are  at  eighteen  when  any  wind  sets  them 
clacking.  What  a  rhythm's  here!  One  would  say  the  body  lay 
asleep  and  the  dance  escaped  from  the  hair  tips,  the  bleached  fuzz 
that  covers  back  and  belly,  shoulders,  neck  and  forehead.  The 
dance  is  diamantine  over  the  sleeper  who  seems  not  to  breathe! 
One  would  say  heat  over  the  end  of  a  roadway  that  turns  down 
hill.  Cesa! 


One  may  write  music  and  music  but  who  will  dance  to  it? 
The  dance  escapes  but  the  music,  the  music — projects  a  dance 
over  itself  which  the  feet  follow  lazily  if  at  all.  So  a  dance  is  a 
thing  in  itself.  It  is  the  music  that  dances  but  if  there  are  words 
then  there  are  two  dancers,  the  words  pirouetting  with  the  music. 

3 

One  has  emotions  about  the  strangest  things:  men — women 
himself  the  most  contemptible.  But  to  struggle  with  ants  for  a 


52 IMPROVISATIONS 

piece  of  meat, — a  mangy  cur  to  swallow  beetles  and  all — better  go 
slaughter  one's  own  kind  in  the  name  of  peace — except  when  the 
body's  not  there  maggots  swarm  in  the  corruption.  Oh  let  him 
have  it.  Find  a  cleaner  fare  for  wife  and  child.  To  the  sick 
their  sick.  For  us  heads  bowed  over  the  green-flowered  aspho 
del.  Lean  on  my  shoulder  little  one,  you  too.  I  will  lead  you  to 
fields  you  know  nothing  of.  There's  small  dancing  left  for  us 
any  way  you  look  at  it. 


A  man  who  enjoyed  his  food,  the  company  of  his  children 
and  especially  his  wife's  alternate  caresses  and  tongue  lashings 
felt  his  position  in  the  town  growing  insecure  due  to  a  successful 
business  competitor.  Being  thus  stung  to  the  quick  he  thinks 
magnanimously  of  his  own  methods  of  dealing  with  his  customers 
and  likens  his  competitor  to  a  dog  that  swallows  his  meat  with 
beetles  or  maggots  upon  it,  that  is,  any  way  so  he  gets  it. 

Being  thus  roused  the  man  does  not  seek  to  outdo  his  rival 
but  grows  heavily  sad  and  thinks  of  death  and  his  lost  pleasures 
thus  showing  himself  to  be  a  person  of  discernment.  For  by  so 
doing  he  gives  evidence  of  a  bastard  sort  of  knowledge  of  that 
diversity  of  context  in  things  and  situations  which  the  great 
masters  of  antiquity  looked  to  for  the  inspiration  and  distinction 
of  their  compositions. 


IMPROVISATIONS  53 


X. 


If  I  could  clap  this  in  a  cage  and  let  that  out  we'd  see  colored 
wings  then  to  blind  the  sun  but — the  good  ships  are  anchored 
up-stream  and  the  gorged  seagulls  flap  heavily.  At  sea!  At 
sea!  That's  where  the  waves  beat  kindliest.  But  no,  singers 
are  beggars  or  worse  cannot  man  a  ship  songs  are  their  trade. 
Ku-whee !  Ku-whee !  It's  a  wind  in  the  lookout's  nest  talking 
of  Columbus,  whom  no  sea  daunted,  Columbus,  chained  below 
decks,  bound  homeward. 


They  built  a  replica  of  Columbus'  flagship  the  Santa  Maria 
and  took  it  from  harbor  to  harbor  along  the  North  Atlantic  sea 
board.  The  insignificance  of  that  shell  could  hardly  be  exagger 
ated  when  comparison  was  made  with  even  the  very  least  of  our 
present  day  sea-going  vessels.  Thus  was  the  magnificence  of 
enterprise  and  the  hardihood  of  one  Christopher  Columbus  cele 
brated  at  this  late  date. 


You  would  learn — if  you  knew  even  one  city — where  people 
are  a  little  gathered  together  and  where  one  sees — it's  our  fron 
tier  you  know — the  common  changes  of  the  human  spirit:  our 
husbands  tire  of  us  and  we — let  us  not  say  we  go  hungry  for  their 
caresses  but  for  caresses — of  a  kind.  Oh  I  am  no  prophet.  I 
have  no  theory  to  advance,  except  that  it's  well  nigh  impossible 
to  know  the  wish  till  after.  Cross  the  room  to  him  if  the  whim 
leads  that  way.  Here's  drink  of  an  eye  that  calls  you.  No  need 
to  take  the  thing  too  seriously.  It's  something  of  a  will-o-the- 
whisp  I  acknowledge.  All  in  the  pressure  of  an  arm — through  a 
fur  coat  often.  Something  of  a  dancing  light  with  the  rain 
beating  on  a  cab  window.  Here's  nothing  to  lead  you  astray. 
What?  Why  you're  young  still.  Your  children?  Yes,  there 
they  are.  Desire  skates  like  a  Hollander  as  well  as  runs  picka 
ninny  fashion.  Really,  there's  little  more  to  say  than :  flowers  in 
a  glass  basket  under  the  electric  glare ;  the  carpet  is  red,  mostly,  a 
hodge-podge  of  zig-zags  that  pass  for  Persian  fancies.  Risk  a 
double  entendre.  But  of  a  sudden  the  room's  not  the  same! 
It's  a  strange  blood  sings  under  some  skin.  Who  will  have  the 


54  IMPROVISATIONS 

sense  for  it?  The  men  sniff  suspiciously;  you  at  least  my  dear 
had  your  head  about  you.  It  was  a  tender  nibble  but  it  really  did 
you  credit.  But  think  of  what  might  be!  It's  all  in  the  imag 
ination.  I  give  you  no  more  credit  than  you  deserve,  you  will 
never  rise  to  it,  never  be  more  than  a  rose  dropped  in  the  river 
— but  acknowledge  that  there  is,  ah  there  is  a —  You  are  such 
a  clever  knitter.  Your  hands  please.  Ah,  if  I  had  your  hands. 


A  woman  of  marked  discernment  finding  herself  among 
strange  companions  wishes  for  the  hands  of  one  of  them  and 
inasmuch  as  she  feels  herself  refreshed  by  the  sight  of  these 
perfections  she  offers  in  return  those  perfections  of  her  own 
which  appear  to  her  to  be  most  appropriate  to  the  occasion. 


Truth's  a  wonder.  What  difference  is  it  how  the  best  head 
we  have  greets  his  first  born  these  days  ?  What  weight  has  it  that 
the  bravest  hair  of  all's  gone  waiting  on  cheap  tables  or  the  most 
garrulous  lives  lonely  by  a  bad  neighbor  and  has  her  south 
windows  pestered  with  caterpillars  ?  The  nights  are  long  for  lice 
combing  or  moon  dodging — and  the  net  comes  in  empty  again. 
Or  there's  been  no  fish  in  this  fiord  since  Christian  was  a  baby. 
Yet  up  surges  the  good  zest  and  the  game's  on.  Follow  at  my 
heels,  there's  little  to  tell  you  you'ld  think  a  stoopsworth.  You'ld 
pick  the  same  faces  in  a  crowd  no  matter  what  I'd  say.  And 
you'ld  be  right  too.  The  path's  not  yours  till  you've  gone  it  alone 
a  time.  But  here's  another  handful  of  west  wind.  White  of 
the  night !  White  of  the  night.  Turn  back  till  I  tell  you  a  puz 
zle:  What  is  it  in  the  stilled  face  of  an  old  mender-man  and 
winter  not  far  off  and  a  darky  parts  his  wool,  and  wenches  wear 
of  a  Sunday?  It's  a  sparrow  with  a  crumb  in  his  beak  dodging 
wheels  and  clouds  crossing  two  ways. 


Virtue  is  not  to  be  packed  in  a  bag  and  carried  off  to  the  rag 
mill.  Perversions  are  righted  and  the  upright  are  reversed,  then 
the  stream  takes  a  bend  upon  itself  and  the  meaning  turns  a  livid 
purple  and  drops  down  in  a  whirlpool  without  so  much  as  fraying 
a  single  fibre. 


IMPROVISATIONS  55 


XL 


Why  pretend  to  remember  the  weather  two  years  back? 
Why  not?  Listen  close  then  repeat  after  others  what  they  have 
just  said  and  win  a  reputation  for  vivacity.  Oh  feed  upon  petals 
of  aedelweis !  one  dew  drop,  if  it  be  from  the  right  flower,  is  five 
year's  drink! 


Having  once  taken  the  plunge  the  situation  that  preceded 
it  becomes  obsolete  which  a  moment  before  was  alive  with 
malignant  rigidities. 

2 

When  beldams  dig  clams  their  fat  hams  (it's  always  bel 
dams)  balanced  near  Tellus'  hide,  this  rhinoceros  pelt,  these 
lumped  stones — buffoonery  of  midges  on  a  bull's  thigh — invoke, 
— what  you  will :  birth's  glut,  awe  at  God's  craft,  youth's  poverty, 
evolution  of  a  child's  caper,  man's  poor  inconsequence.  Eclipse 
of  all  things ;  sun's  self  turned  hen's  rump. 

3 

Cross  a  knife  and  fork  and  listen  to  the  church  bells !  It  is 
the  harvest  moon's  made  wine  of  our  blood.  Up  over  the  dark 
factory  into  the  blue  glare  start  the  young  poplars.  They  whis 
per  :  It  is  Sunday !  It  is  Sunday !  But  the  laws  of  the  county 
have  been  stripped  bare  of  leaves.  Out  over  the  marshes  flickers 
our  laughter.  A  lewd  anecdote's  the  chase.  On  through  the 
vapory  heather !  And  there  at  banter's  edge  the  city  looks  at  us 
sidelong  with  great  eyes, — lifts  to  its  lips  heavenly  milk !  Lucina, 
O  Lucina!  beneficent  cow,  how  have  we  offended  thee? 


Hilariously  happy  because  of  some  obscure  wine  of  the  fancy 
which  they  have  drunk  four  rollicking  companions  take  delight  in 
the  thought  that  they  have  thus  evaded  the  stringent  laws  of  the 
county.  Seeing  the  distant  city  bathed  in  moonlight  and  staring 
seriously  at  them  they  liken  the  moon  to  a  cow  and  its  light  to 
milk. 


56  IMPROVISATIONS 


XII. 


The  browned  trees  are  singing  for  my  thirty- fourth  birthday. 
Leaves  are  beginning  to  fall  upon  the  long  grass.  Their  cold 
perfume  raises  the  anticipation  of  sensational  revolutions  in  my 
unsettled  life.  Violence  has  begotten  peace,  peace  has  fluttered 
away  in  agitation.  A  bewildered  change  has  turned  among  the 
roots  and  the  Prince's  kiss  as  far  at  sea  as  ever. 


To  each  age  as  to  each  person  its  perfections.  But  in  these 
things  there  is  a  kind  of  revolutionary  sequence.  So  that  a  man 
having  lain  at  ease  here  and  advanced  there  as  time  progresses 
the  order  of  these  things  becomes  inverted.  Thinking  to  have 
brought  all  to  one  level  the  man  finds  his  foot  striking  through 
where  he  had  thought  rock  to  be  and  stands  firm  where  he  had 
experienced  only  a  bog  hitherto.  At  a  loss  to  free  himself  from 
bewilderment  at  this  discovery  he  puts  off  the  caress  of  the 
imagination. 

2 

The  trick  is  never  to  touch  the  world  anywhere.  Leave 
yourself  at  the  door,  walk  in,  admire  the  pictures,  talk  a  few 
words  with  the  master  of  the  house,  question  his  wife  a  little, 
rejoin  yourself  at  the  door — and  go  off  arm  in  arm  listening  to 
last  week's  symphony  played  by  angel  hornsmen  from  the  benches 
of  a  turned  cloud.  Or  if  dogs  rub  too  close  and  the  poor  are  too 
much  out  let  your  friend  answer  them. 


The  poet  being  sad  at  the  misery  he  has  beheld  that  morning 
and  seeing  several  laughing  fellows  approaching  puts  himself  in 
their  way  in  order  to  hear  what  they  are  saying.  Gathering  from 
their  remarks  that  it  is  of  some  sharp  business  by  which  they  have 
all  made  an  inordinate  profit,  he  allows  his  thoughts  to  play  back 
upon  the  current  of  his  own  life.  And  imagining  himself  to  be  two 
persons  he  eases  his  mind  by  putting  his  burdens  upon  one  while 
the  other  takes  what  pleasure  there  is  before  him. 


IMPROVISATIONS         57 

Something  to  grow  used  to ;  a  stone  too  big  for  ox  haul,  too 
near  for  blasting.  Take  the  road  round  it  or — scrape  away, 
scrape  away :  a  mountain's  buried  in  the  dirt !  Marry  a  gopher 
to  help  you!  Drive  her  in!  Go  yourself  down  along  the  lit 
pastures.  Down,  down.  The  whole  family  take  shovels,  babies 
and  all!  Down,  down!  Here's  Tenochtitlan !  here's  a  strange 
Darien  where  worms  are  princes. 

3 

But  for  broken  feet  beating,  beating  on  worn  flagstones  I 
would  have  danced  to  my  knees  at  the  fiddle's  first  run.  But 
here's  evening  and  there  they  scamper  back  of  the  world  chasing 
the  sun  round!  And  it's  daybreak  in  Calcutta!  So  lay  aside, 
let's  draw  off  from  the  town  and  look  back  awhile.  See,  there  it 
rises  out  of  the  swamp  and  the  mists  already  blowing  their  sleepy 
bagpipes. 


Often  a  poem  will  have  merit  because  of  some  one  line  or 
even  one  meritorious  word.  So  it  hangs  heavily  on  its  stem  but 
still  secure,  the  tree  unwilling  to  release  it. 


58  IMPROVISATIONS 


XIII. 


Their  half  sophisticated  faces  gripe  me  in  the  belly.  There's 
no  business  to  be  done  with  them  either  way.  They're  neither 
virtuous  nor  the  other  thing,  between  which  exist  no  perfections. 
Oh,  the  mothers  will  explain  that  they  are  good  girls.  But  these 
never  guess  that  there's  more  sense  in  a  sentence  heard  backward 
than  forward  most  times.  A  country  whose  flowers  are  without 
perfume  and  whose  girls  lack  modesty — the  saying  goes — .  Dig 
deeper  mon  ami,  the  rock  maidens  are  running  naked  in  the 
dark  cellars. 


In  disgust  at  the  spectacle  of  an  excess  of  ripe  flesh  that,  in 
accordance  with  the  local  custom  of  the  place  he  is  in,  will  be 
left  to  wither  without  ever  achieving  its  full  enjoyment,  a  young 
man  of  the  place  consoles  himself  with  a  vision  of  perfect  beauty. 


I'll  not  get  it  no  matter  how  I  try.  Say  it  was  a  girl  in  black 
I  held  open  a  street  door  for.  Let  it  go  at  that.  I  saw  a  man  an 
hour  earlier  I  liked  better  much  better.  But  it's  not  so  easy 
to  pass  over.  Perfection's  not  a  thing  you'll  let  slip  so  easily. 
What  a  body!  The  little  flattened  buttocks;  the  quiver  of  the 
flesh  under  the  smooth  fabric !  Agh,  it  isn't  that  I  want  to  go 
to  bed  with  you.  In  fact  what  is  there  to  say?  except  the 
mind's  a  queer  nereid  sometimes  and  flesh  is  at  least  as  good  a 
gauze  as  words  are:  something  of  that.  Something  of  mine— 
yours — hearts  on  sleaves?  Ah  zut  what's  the  use?  It's  not 
that  I've  lost  her  again  either.  It's  hard  to  tell  loss  from  gain 
anyway. 

3 

The  words  of  the  thing  twang  and  twitter  to  the  gentle  rock 
ing  of  a  high-laced  boot  and  the  silk  above  that.  The  trick  of 
the  dance  is  in  following  now  the  words,  allegro,  now  the  con 
trary  beat  of  the  glossy  leg:  Reaching  far  over  as  if — But  al 
ways  she  draws  back  and  comes  down  upon  the  word  flat  footed. 


IMPROVISATIONS 59 

For  a  moment  we — 'but  the  boot's  costly  and  the  play's  not  mine. 
The  pace  leads  off  anew.  Again  the  words  break  it  and  we  both 
comes  down  flatfooted.  Then — near  the  knee,  jumps  to  the  eyes, 
catching  in  the  hair's  shadow.  But  the  lips  take  the  rhythm  again 
and  again  we  come  down  flatfooted.  By  this  time  boredom  takes 
a  hand  and  the  play's  ended. 


60  IMPROVISATIONS 


XIV. 


The  brutal  Lord  of  All  will  rip  us  from  each  other — leave  the 
one  to  suffer  here  alone.  No  need  belief  in  god  or  hell  to  postu 
late  that  much.  The  dance:  hands  touching,  leaves  touching 
— eyes  looking,  clouds  rising- — lips  touching,  cheeks  touching, 
arms  about  .  .  .  Sleep.  Heavy  head,  heavy  arm,  heavy 
dream — :  Of  Ymir's  flesh  the  earth  was  made  and  of  his 
thoughts  were  all  the  gloomy  clouds  created.  Oya ! 


Out  of  bitterness  itself  the  clear  wine  of  the  imagination 
will  be  pressed  and  the  dance  prosper  thereby. 


To  you !  whoever  you  are,  wherever  you  are !  (But  I  know 
where  you  are!)  There's  Durer's  "Nemesis"  naked  on  her 
sphere  over  the  little  town  by  the  river — except  she's  too  old. 
There's  a  dancing  burgess  by  Tenier  and  Villon's  maitress — after 
he'd  gone  bald  and  was  shin  pocked  and  toothless :  she  that  had 
him  ducked  in  the  sewage  drain.  Then  there's  that  miller's 
daughter  of  "buttocks  broad  and  breastes  high".  Something  of 
Nietzsche,  something  of  the  good  Samaritan,  something  of  the 
devil  himself, — can  cut  a  caper  of  a  fashion,  my  fashion !  Hey 
you,  the  dance!  Squat.  Leap.  Hips  to  the  left.  Chin — ha! — 
sideways!  Stand  up,  stand  up  ma  bonne!  you'll  break  my  back 
bone.  So  again!  — and  so  forth  till  we're  sweat  soaked. 


Some  fools  once  were  listening  to  a  poet  reading  his  poem. 
It  so  happened  that  the  words  of  the  thing  spoke  of  gross  matters 
of  the  everyday  world  such  as  are  never  much  hidden  from  a 
quick  eye.  Out  of  these  semblances,  and  borrowing  certain 
members  from  fitting  masterpieces  of  antiquity,  the  poet  began 
piping  up  his  music,  simple  fellow,  thinking  to  please  his  listeners. 
But  they  getting  the  whole  matter  sadly  muddled  in  their  minds 


IMPROVISATIONS 61 

made  such  a  confused  business  of  listening  that  not  only  were 
they  not  pleased  at  the  poet's  exertions  but  no  sooner  had  he  done 
than  they  burst  out  against  him  with  violent  imprecations. 


It's  all  one.  Richard  worked  years  to  conquer  the  descend 
ing  cadence,  idiotic  sentimentalist.  Ha,  for  happiness!  This 
tore  the  dress  in  ribbons  from  her  maid's  back  and  not  spared  the 
nails  either ;  wild  anger  spit  from  her  pinched  eyes !  This  is  the 
better  part.  Or  a  child  under  a  table  to  be  dragged  out  coughing 
and  biting,  eyes  glittering  evilly.  I'll  have  it  my  way!  Nothing 
is  any  pleasure  but  misery  and  brokeness.  THIS  is  the  only  up- 
cadence.  This  is  where  the  secret  rolls  over  and  opens  its  eyes. 
Bitter  words  spoken  to  a  child  ripple  in  morning  light !  Boredom 
from  a  bedroom  doorway  thrills  with  anticipation!  The  com 
plaints  of  an  old  man  dying  piecemeal  are  starling  chirrups. 
Coughs  go  singing  on  springtime  paths  across  a  field;  corruption 
picks  strawberries  and  slow  warping  of  the  mind,  blacking  the 
deadly  walls — counted  and  recounted — rolls  in  the  grass  and 
shouts  ecstatically.  All  is  solved!  The  moaning  and  dull  sob 
bing  of  infants  sets  blood  tingling  and  eyes  ablaze  to  listen. 
Speed  sings  in  the  heels  at  long  nights  tossing  on  coarse  sheets 
with  burning  sockets  staring  into  the  black.  Dance!  Sing! 
Coil  and  uncoil!  Whip  yourselves  about!  Shout  the  deliver- 
ence !  An  old  woman  has  infected  her  blossomy  grand-daughter 
with  a  blood  illness  that  every  two  weeks  drives  the  mother  into 
hidden  songs  of  agony,  the  pad-footed  mirage  of  creeping  death 
for  music.  The  face  muscles  keep  pace.  Then  a  darting  about 
the  compass  in  a  tarantelle  that  wears  flesh  from  bones.  Here  is 
dancing !  The  mind  in  tatters.  And  so  the  music  wistfully  takes 
the  lead.  Aye  de  mi,  Juana  la  Loca,  reina  de  Espagna,  esa  esta 
tu  canto,  reina  mia! 


62  IMPROVISATIONS 


XV. 


'N!  cha!  cha!  cha!  destiny  needs  men,  so  make  up 
your  mind.  Here's  an  oak  filling  the  wind's  space.  Out  with 
him! 

By  carefully  prepared  stages  come  down  through  the 
vulgarities  of  a  cupiscent  girlhood  to  the  barren  distinction  of 
this  cold  six  A.  M.  Her  pretty,  pinched  face  is  a  very  simple 
tune  but  it  carries  now  a  certain  quasi-maidenly  distinction.  It's 
not  at  least  what  you'd  have  heard  six  years  back  when  she  was 
really  virgin. 


Often  when  the  descent  seems  well  marked  there  will  be  a 
subtle  ascent  over-ruling  it  so  that  in  the  end  when  the  degrada 
tion  is  fully  anticipated  the  person  will  be  found  to  have  emerged 
upon  a  hilltop. 

2 

Such  an  old  sinner  knows  the  lit-edged  clouds.  No  spring 
days  like  those  that  come  in  October.  Strindberg  had  the  eyes 
for  Swan  White !  So  make  my  bed  with  yours,  tomorrow  .  .  .  ? 
Tomorrow  .  .  .  the  hospital. 


Seeing  his  life  at  an  end  a  miserable  fellowf  much  accus 
tomed  to  evil,  wishes  for  the  companionship  of  youth  and  beauty 
before  he  dies  and  in  exchange  thinks  to  proffer  that  praise  which 
due  to  the  kind  of  life  he  has  led  he  is  most  able  to  give. 

3 

Here's  a  new  sort  of  April  clouds:  whiffs  of  dry  snow  on 
the  polished  roadway  that,  curled  by  the  wind,  lie  in  feathery 
figures.  Oh  but  April's  not  to  be  hedged  that  simply.  She  was 
a  Scotch  lady  and  made  her  own  butter  and  they  grew  their  own 
rye.  It  was  the  finest  bread  I  ever  tasted.  And  how  we  used  to 
jump  in  the  hay!  When  he  lost  his  money  she  kept  a  boarding 


IMPROVISATIONS 63 

house  .  .  But  this  is  nothing  to  the  story  that  should  have  been 
written  could  he  have  had  time  to  jot  it  all  down :  of  how  Bertha's 
lips  are  turned  and  her  calf  also  and  how  she  weighs  118  pounds. 
Do  I  think  that  is  much?  Hagh!  And  her  other  perfections. 
Ruin  the  girl?  Oh  there  are  fifty  niceties  that — being  virtuous, 
oh  glacially  virtuous — one  might  consider,  i.e.  whose  touch  is  the 
less  venomous  and  by  virtue  of  what  sanction?  Love,  my  good 
friends  has  never  held  sway  in  more  than  a  heart  or  two  here  and 
there  since — ?  All  beauty  stands  upon  the  edge  of  the  deflower 
ing.  I  confess  I  wish  my  wife  younger.  This  is  the  lewdest 
thought  possible:  it  makes  mockery  of  the  spirit,  say  you? 
Solitary  poet  who  speaks  his  mind  and  has  not  one  fellow  in  a 
virtuous  world!  I  wish  for  youth!  I  wish  for  love — !  I  see 
well  what  passes  in  the  street  and  much  that  passes  in  the  mind. 
You'll  say  this  has  nothing  in  it  of  chastity.  Ah  well,  chastity 
is  a  lily  of  the  valley  that  only  a  fool  would  mock.  There  is  no 
whiter  nor  no  sweeter  flower — but  once  past,  the  rankest  stink 
comes  from  the  soothest  petals.  Heigh-ya!  A  crib  from  our 
mediaeval  friend  Shakespeare. 


That  which  is  heard  from  the  lips  of  those  to  whom  we  are 
talking  in  our  day' s-aff airs  mingles  with  what  we  see  in  the  streets 
and  everywhere  about  us  as  it  mingles  also  with  our  imaginations. 
By  this  chemistry  is  fabricated  a  language  of  the  day  which  shifts 
and  reveals  its  meaning  as  clouds  shift  and  turn  in  the  sky  and 
sometimes  send  down  rain  or  snow  or  hail.  This  is  the  language 
to  which  few  ears  are  tuned  so  that  it  is  said  by  poets  that  few 
men  are  ever  in  their  full  senses  since  they  have  no  way  to  use 
their  imaginations.  Thus  to  say  that  a  man  has  no  imagination 
is  to  say  nearly  that  he  is  blind  or  deaf.  But  of  old  poets  would 
translate  this  hidden  language  into  a  kind  of  replica  of  the  speech 
of  the  world  with  certain  distinctions  of  rhyme  and  meter  to  show 
that  it  was  not  really  that  speech.  Nowadays  the  elements  of 
that  language  are  set  down  as  heard  and  the  imagination  of  the 
listener  and  of  the  poet  are  left  free  to  mingle  in  the  dance. 


64  IMPROVISATIONS 


XVI. 


Per  le  pillole  d'Ercole!  I  should  write  a  happy  poem  tonight. 
It  would  have  to  do  with  a  bare,  upstanding  fellow  whose  thighs 
bulge  with  a  zest  for — say,  a  zest!  He  tries  his  arm.  Flings  a 
stone  over  the  river.  Scratches  his  bare  back.  Twirls  his  beard, 
laughs  softly  and  stretches  up  his  arms  in  a  yawn.  — stops  in 
the  midst — looking !  A  white  flash  over  against  the  oak  stems ! 
Draws  in  his  belly.  Looks  again.  In  three  motions  is  near  the 
stream's  middle,  swinging  forward,  hugh,  hugh,  hugh,  hugh, 
blinking  his  eyes  against  the  lapping  wavelets !  Out !  and  the 
sting  of  the  thicket ! 


The  poet  transforms  himself  into  a  satyr  and  goes  in  pursuit 
of  a  white  skinned  dryad.  The  gaiety  of  his  mood  full  of  lusti- 
hood,  even  so,  turns  back  with  a  mocking  jibe. 


Giants  in  the  dirt.  The  gods,  the  Greek  gods,  smothered 
in  filth  and  ignorance.  The  race  is  scattered  over  the  world. 
Where  is  its  home?  Find  it  if  you've  the  genius.  Here  Hebe 
with  a  sick  jaw  and  a  cruel  husband, — her  mother  left  no  place 
for  a  brain  to  grow.  Herakles  rowing  boats  on  Berry's  Creek! 
Zeus  is  a  country  doctor  without  a  taste  for  coin  jingling.  Sup 
per  is  of  a  bastard  nectar  on  rare  nights  for  they  will  come — 
the  rare  nights!  The  ground  lifts  and  out  sally  the  heroes  of 
Sophocles,  of  JEschylus.  They  go  seeping  down  into  our  hearts, 
they  rain  upon  us  and  in  the  bog  they  sink  again  down  through 
the  white  roots,  down — to  a  saloon  back  of  the  rail-road  switch 
where  they  have  that  girl,  you  know,  the  one  that  should  have 
been  Venus  by  the  lust  that's  in  her.  They've  got  her  down  there 
among  the  railroad  men.  A  crusade  couldn't  rescue  her.  Up  to 
jail — or  call  it  down  to  Limbo — the  Chief  of  Police  our  Pluto. 
It's  all  of  the  gods,  there's  nothing  else  worth  writing  of.  They 
are  the  same  men  they  always  were — but  fallen.  Do  they  dance 
now,  they  that  danced  beside  Helicon  ?  They  dance  much  as  they 
did  then,  only,  few  have  an  eye  for  it,  through  the  dirt  and 
fumes. 


IMPROVISATIONS 65 

When  they  came  to  question  the  girl  before  the  local  judge 
it  was  discovered  that  there  were  seventeen  men  more  or  less 
involved  so  that  there  was  nothing  to  do  but  to  declare  the  child 
a  common  bastard  and  send  the  girl  about  her  business.  Her 
mother  took  her  in  and  after  the  brat  died  of  pneumonia  a  year 
later  she  called  in  the  police  one  day.  An  officer  opened  the 
bedroom  door.  The  girl  was  in  bed  with  an  eighteenth  fellow, 
a  young  roaming  loafer  with  a  silly  grin  to  his  face.  They  forced 
a  marriage  which  relieved  the  mother  of  her  burden.  The  girl 
was  weak  minded  so  that  it  was  only  with  the  greatest  difficulty 
that  she  could  cover  her  moves,  in  fact  she  never  could  do  so  with 
success. 

3 

Homer  sat  in  a  butcher's  shop  one  rainy  night  and  smelt 
fresh  meat  near  him  so  he  moved  to  the  open  window.  It  is 
infinitely  important  that  I  do  what  I  well  please  in  the  world. 
What  you  please  is  that  I  please  what  you  please  but  what  I  please 
is  well  rid  of  you  before  I  turn  off  from  the  path  into  the  field. 
What  I  am,  why  that  they  made  me.  What  I  do,  why  that  I 
choose  for  myself.  Reading  shows,  you  say.  Yes,  reading 
shows  reading.  What  you  read  is  what  they  think  and  what  they 
think  is  twenty  years  old  or  twenty  thousand  and  it's  all  one  to 
the  little  girl  in  the  pissoir.  Likewise  to  me.  But  the  butcher 
was  a  friendly  fellow  so  he  took  the  carcass  outside  thinking 
Homer  to  be  no  more  than  any  other  beggar. 


A  man's  carcass  has  no  more  distinction  than  the  carcass 
of  an  ox. 


66  IMPROVISATIONS 


XVII. 


Little  round  moon  up  there — wait  awhile — do  not  walk  so 
quickly.  I  could  sing  you  a  song — :  Wine  clear  the  sky  is  and 
the  stars  no  bigger  than  sparks!  Wait  for  me  and  next  winter 
we'll  build  a  fire  and  shake  up  twists  of  sparks  out  of  it  and  you 
shall  see  yourself  in  the  ashes,  young — as  you  were  one  time. 


//  has  always  been  the  fashion  to  talk  about  the  moon. 


This  that  I  have  struggled  against  is  the  very  thing  I  should 
have  chosen — but  all's  right  now.  They  said  I  could  not  put  the 
flower  back  into  the  stem  nor  win  roses  upon  dead  briars  and  I 
like  a  fool  believed  them.  But  all's  right  now.  Weave  away, 
dead  fingers,  the  darkies  are  dancing  in  Mayaguez — all  but  one 
with  the  sore  heel  and  sugar  cane  will  soon  be  high  enough  to 
romp  through.  Haia!  leading  over  the  ditches,  with  your  skirts 
flying  and  the  devil  in  the  wind  back  of  you — no  one  else. 
Weave  away  and  the  bitter  tongue  of  an  old  woman  is  eating, 
eating,  eating  venomous  words  with  thirty  years  mould  on  them 
and  all  shall  be  eaten  back  to  honeymoon's  end.  Weave  and 
pangs  of  agony  and  pangs  of  loneliness  are  beaten  backward  into 
the  love  kiss,  weave  and  kiss  recedes  into  kiss  and  kisses  into 
looks  and  looks  into  the  heart's  dark — and  over  again  and  over 
again  and  time's  pushed  ahead  in  spite  of  all  that.  The  petals 
that  fell  bearing  me  under  are  lifted  one  by  one.  That  which 
kissed  my  flesh  for  priest's  lace  so  that  I  could  not  touch  it — 
weave  and  you  have  lifted  it  and  I  am  glimpsing  light  chinks 
among  the  notes !  Backward,  and  my  hair  is  crisp  with  purple 
sap  and  the  last  crust's  broken. 


A  woman  on  the  verge  of  growing  old  kindles  in  the  mind  of 
her  son  a  certain  curiosity  which  spinning  upon  itself  catches  the 


IMPROVISATIONS 67 

woman  herself  in  Us  wheel,  stripping  from  her  the  accumulations 
of  many  harsh  years  and  shows  her  at  last  full  of  an  old  time 
suppleness  hardly  to  have  been  guessed  by  the  stiffened  exterior 
which  had  held  her  fast  till  that  time. 


Once  again  the  moon  in  a  glassy  twilight.  The  gas  jet  in 
the  third  floor  window  is  turned  low,  they  have  not  drawn  the 
shade,  sends  down  a  flat  glare  upon  the  lounge's  cotton-Persian 
cover  where  the  time  passes  with  clumsy  caresses.  Never  in 
this  millieu  has  one  stirred  himself  to  turn  up  the  light.  It  is 
costly  to  leave  a  jet  burning  at  all.  Feel  your  way  to  the  bed. 
Drop  your  clothes  on  the  floor  and  creep  in.  Flesh  becomes  so 
accustomed  to  the  touch  she  will  not  even  waken.  And  so 
hours  pass  and  not  a  move.  The  room  too  falls  asleep  and  the 
street  outside  falls  mumbling  into  a  heap  of  black  rags  morn 
ing's  at  seven — 


Seeing  a  light  in  an  upper  window  the  poet  by  means  of  the 
power  he  has  enters  the  room  and  of  what  he  sees  there  brews 
himself  a  sleep  potion. 


68  IMPROVISATIONS 


XVIII. 


How  deftly  we  keep  love  from  each  other.  It  is  no  trick  at 
all:  the  movement  of  a  cat  that  leaps  a  low  barrier.  You  have 
— if  the  truth  be  known — loved  only  one  man  and  that  was  before 
my  time.  Past  him  you  have  never  thought  nor  desired  to  think. 
In  his  perfections  you  are  perfect.  You  are  likewise  perfect  in 
other  things.  You  present  to  me  the  surface  of  a  marble.  And 
I,  we  will  say,  loved  also  before  your  time.  Put  it  quite 
obscenely.  And  I  have  my  perfections.  So  here  we  present 
ourselves  to  each  other  naked.  What  have  we  effected  ?  Say 
we  have  aged  a  little  together  and  you  have  borne  children.  We 
have  in  short  thriven  as  the  world  goes.  We  have  proved  fertile. 
The  children  are  apparently  healthy.  One  of  them  is  even 
whimsical  and  one  has  an  unusual  memory  and  a  keen  eye. 
But — It  is  not  that  we  have  not  felt  a  certain  rumbling,  a  certain 
stirring  of  the  earth  but  what  has  it  amounted  to?  Your  first 
love  and  mine  were  of  different  species.  There  is  only  one  way 
out.  It  is  for  me  to  take  up  my  basket  of  words  and  for  you  to 
sit  at  your  piano,  each  his  own  way,  until  I  have,  if  it  so  be  that 
good  fortune  smile  my  way,  made  a  shrewd  bargain  at  some  fair 
and  so  by  dint  of  heavy  straining  supplanted  in  your  memory  the 
brilliance  of  the  old  nrmhold.  Which  is  impossible.  Ergo:  I 
am  a  blackguard. 


The  act  is  disclosed  by  the  imagination  of  it.  But  of  first 
importance  is  to  realize  that  the  imagination  leads  and  the  deed 
comes  behind.  First  Don  Quixote  then  Sancho  Panza.  So  that 
the  act,  to  win  its  praise,  will  win  it  in  diverse  fashions  according 
to  the^  way  the  imagination  has  taken.  Thus  a  harsh  deed  will 
sometimes  win  its  praise  through  laughter  and  sometimes  through 
savage  mockery,  and  a  deed  of  simple  kindness  will  come  to  its 
reward  through  sarcastic  comment.  Each  thing  is  secure  in  its 
own  perfections. 

2 

After  thirty  years  staring  at  one  true  phrase  he  discovered 
that  its  opposite  was  true  also.  For  weeks  he  laughed  in  the  grip 
of  a  fierce  self  derision.  Having  lost  the  falsehood  to  which  he'd 


IMPROVISATIONS 69 

fixed  his  hawser  he  rolled  drunkenly  about  the  field  of  his 
environment  before  the  new  direction  began  to  dawn  upon  his 
cracked  mind.  What  a  fool  ever  to  be  tricked  into  seriousness. 
Soft  hearted,  hard  hearted.  Thick  crystals  began  to  shoot 
through  the  liquid  of  his  spirit.  Black,  they  were:  branches  that 
have  lain  in  a  fog  which  now  a  wind  is  blowing  away.  Things 
move.  Fatigued  as  you  are  watch  how  the  mirror  sieves  out  the 
extraneous :  in  sleep  as  in  waking.  Summoned  to  his  door  by  a 
tinkling  bell  he  looked  into  a  white  face,  the  face  of  a  man 
convulsed  with  dread,  saw  the  laughter  back  of  its  drawn  alert 
ness.  Out  in  the  air:  the  sidesplitting  burlesque  of  a  sparkling 
midnight  stooping  over  a  little  house  on  a  sandbank.  The  city  at 
the  horizon  blowing  a  lurid  red  against  the  flat  cloud.  The  moon 
masquerading  for  a  tower  clock  over  the  factory,  its  hands  in  a 
gesture  that,  were  time  real,  would  have  settled  all.  But  the 
delusion  convulses  the  leafless  trees  with  the  deepest  appreciation 
of  the  mummery :  insolent  poking  of  a  face  upon  the  half-lit  win 
dow  from  which  the  screams  burst.  So  the  man  alighted  in  the 
great  silence,  with  a  myopic  star  blinking  to  clear  its  eye  over  his 
hat  top.  He  comes  to  do  good.  Fatigue  tickles  his  calves  and 
the  lower  part  of  his  back  with  solicitous  fingers,  strokes  his  feet 
and  his  knees  with  appreciative  charity.  He  plunges  up  the  dark 
steps  on  his  grotesque  deed  of  mercy.  In  his  warped  brain  an 
owl  of  irony  fixes  on  the  immediate  object  of  his  care  as  if  it 
were  the  thing  to  be  destroyed,  guffaws  at  the  impossibility  of 
putting  any  kind  of  value  on  the  object  inside  or  of  even  reversing 
or  making  less  by  any  other  means  than  induced  sleep — which  is 
no  solution — the  methodical  gripe  of  the  sufferer.  Stupidity 
couched  in  a  dingy  room  beside  the  kitchen.  One  room  stove- 
hot,  the  next  the  dead  cold  of  a  butcher's  ice  box.  The  man 
leaned  and  cut  the  baby  from  its  stem.  Slop  in  disinfectant,  roar 
with  derision  at  the  insipid  blood  stench:  hallucination  comes  to 
the  rescue  on  the  brink  of  seriousness:  the  gas-stove  flame  is 
starblue,  violets  back  of  L'Orloge  at  Lancy.  The  smile  of  a 
spring  morning  trickles  into  the  back  of  his  head  and  blinds  the 
eyes  to  the  irritation  of  the  poppy  red  flux.  A  cracked  window 
blind  lets  in  Venus.  Stars.  The  hand-lamp  is  too  feeble  to  have 
its  own  way.  The  vanity  of  their  neck  stretching,  trying  to  be 
large  as  a  street-lamp  sets  him  roaring  to  himself  anew.  And 
rubber  gloves,  the  color  of  moist  dates,  the  identical  glisten  and 
texture :  means  a  ballon  trip  to  Fez.  So  one  is  a  ridiculous  savior 


TO IMPROVISATIONS 

of  the  poor,  with  fatigue  always  at  his  elbow  with  a  new  jest, 
the  newest  smutty  story,  the  prettiest  defiance  of  insipid  pretences 
that  cannot  again  assert  divine  right — nonsensical  gods  that  are 
fit  to  lick  shoes  clean :  and  the  great  round  face  of  Sister  Palagia 
straining  to  keep  composure  against  the  jaws  of  a  body  louse. 
In  at  the  back  door.  We  have  been  a  benefactor.  The  cross 
laughter  has  been  denied  us  but  one  cannot  have  more  than  the 
appetite  sanctions. 

3 

Awake  early  to  the  white  blare  of  a  sun  flooding  in  sidewise. 
Strip  and  bathe  in  it.  Ha,  but  an  ache  tearing  at  your  throat — and 
a  vague  cinema  lifting  its  black  moon  blot  all  out.  There's  no 
walking  barefoot  in  the  crisp  leaves  nowadays.  There's  no 
dancing  save  in  the  head's  dark.  Go  draped  in  soot;  call  on 
modern  medicine  to  help  you:  the  coal  man's  blowing  his  thin 
dust  up  through  the  house !  Why  then,  a  new  step  lady !  I'll 
meet  you — you  know  where — o'  the  dark  side!  Let  the  wheel 
click.  " 


In  the  mind  there  is  a  continual  play  of  obscure  images  which 
coming  between  the  eyes  and  their  prey  seem  pictures  on  the 
screen  at  the  movies.  Somewhere  there  appears  to  be  a  mal 
adjustment.  The  wish  would  be  to  see  not  floating  visions  of 
unknown  purport  but  the  imaginative  qualities  of  the  actual 
things  being  perceived  accompany  their  gross  vision  in  a  slow 
dance,  interpreting  as  they  go.  But  inasmuch  as  this  will  not 
always  be  the  case  one  must  dance  nevertheless  as  he  can. 


IMPROVISATIONS  71 


XIX. 


Carry  clapping  bundles  of  lath-strips,  adjust,  dig,  saw  on  a 
diagonal,  hammer  a  thousand  ends  fast  and  discover  afterward 
the  lattice-arbor  top's  two  clean  lines  in  a  dust  of  dew.  There  are 
days  when  leaves  have  knife's  edges  and  one  sees  only  eye-pupils, 
fixes  every  catchpenny  in  a  shop  window  and  every  wire  against 
the  sky  but — goes  puzzled  from  vista  to  vista  in  his  own  house 
staring  under  beds  for  God  knows  what  all. 


A  lattice  screen  say  fifty  feet  long  by  seven  high,  such  a 
thing  as  is  built  to  cut  off  some  certain  part  of  a  yard  from 
public  mew,  is  surprisingly  expensive  to  put  up.  The  wooden 
strips  alone,  if  they  are  placed  at  all  close  together  must  be 
figured  solid,  as  if  it  were  a  board  fence.  Then  there  are  the 
posts,  the  frames,  the  trimming,  the  labor  and  last  of  all  the  two 
coats  of  paint.  Is  it  a  wonder  the  artisan  cannot  afford  more 
than  the  luxury  of  these  calculations. 


Imperceptibly  your  self  shakes  free  in  all  its  brutal  signifi 
cance,  feels  its  subtle  power  renewed  and  abashed  at  its  covered 
lustihood  breaks  to  the  windows  and  draws  back  before  the 
sunshine  it  sees  there  as  before  some  imagined  figure  that  would 
be  there  if — ah  if—  But  for  a  moment  your  hand  rests  upon  the 
palace  window  sill,  only  for  a  moment. 

3 

It  is  not  fair  to  be  old,  to  put  on  a  brown  sweater.  It  is  not 
just  to  walk  out  of  a  November  evening  bare  headed  and  with 
white  hair  in  the  wind.  Oh  the  cheeks  are  ruddy  enough  and  the 
grin  broad  enough,  it's  not  that.  Worse  is  to  ride  a  wheel,  a 
glittering  machine  that  runs  without  knowing  to  move.  It  is  no 
part  of  the  eternal  truth  to  wear  white  canvas  shoes  and  a  pink 
coat.  It  is  a  damnable  lie  to  be  fourteen.  The  curse  of  God  is 
on  her  head!  Who  can  speak  of  justice  when  young  men  wear 


72 IMPROVISATIONS 

round  hats  and  carry  bundles  wrapped  in  paper.  It  is  a  case  for 
the  supreme  court  to  button  a  coat  in  the  wind,  no  matter  how 
icy.  Lewd  to  touch  an  arm  at  a  crossing;  the  shame  of  it 
screams  to  the  man  in  a  window.  The  horrible  misery  brought  on 
by  the  use  of  black  shoes  is  more  than  the  wind  will  ever  swallow. 
To  move  at  all  is  worse  than  murder,  worse  than  Jack  the  Ripper. 
It's  lies,  walking,  spitting,  breathing,  coughing  lies  that  bloom, 
shine  sun,  shine  moon.  Unfair  to  see  or  be  seen,  snatch-purses 
work.  Eat  hands  full  of  ashes,  angels  have  lived  on  it  time  with 
out  end.  Are  you  better  than  an  angel?  Let  judges  giggle  to 
each  other  over  their  benches  and  use  dirty  towels  in  the  ante 
room.  Gnaw,  gnaw,  gnaw !  at  the  heads  of  felons  .  .  .  There 
was  a  baroness  lived  in  Hungary  bathed  twice  monthly  in  virgin's 
blood. 


A  mother  will  love  her  children  most  grotesquely.  I  do  not 
mean  by  that  more  than  the  term  "perversely"  perhaps  more 
accurately  describes.  Oh  I  mean  the  most  commonplace  of 
mothers.  She  will  be  most  willing  toward  that  daughter  who 
thwarts  her  most  and  not  toward  the  little  kitchen  helper.  So 
where  one  is  mother  to  any  great  number  of  people  he  will  love 
best  perhaps  some  child  whose  black  and  peculiar  hair  is  an  exact 
replica  of  that  of  the  figure  in  Velasques' ,  Infanta  Maria  Theresa 
or  some  Italian  matron  whose  largeness  of  manner  takes  in  the 
whole  street.  These  things  relate  to  inner  perfections  which  it 
would  be  profitless  to  explain. 


IMPROVISATIONS  73 


XX. 


Where  does  this  downhill  turn  up  again?  Driven  to  the 
wall  you'd  put  claws  to  your  toes  and  make  a  ladder  of  smooth 
bricks.  But  this,  this  scene  shifting  that  has  clipped  the  clouds' 
stems  and  left  them  to  flutter  down;  heaped  them  at  the  feet,  so 
much  hay,  so  much  bull's  fodder.  (Au  moins,  you  cannot  deny 
you  have  the  clouds  to  grasp  now,  mon  ami !)  Climb  now  ?  The 
wall's  clipped  off  too,  only  its  roots  are  left.  Come,  here's  an 
iron  hoop  from  a  barrel  once  held  nectar  to  gnaw  spurs  out  of. 


You  cannot  hold  spirit  round  the  arms  but  it  takes  lies  for 
wings,  turns  poplar  leaf  and  flutters  off — leaving  the  old  stalk 
desolate.  There's  much  pious  pointing  at  the  sky  but  on  the 
other  side  few  know  how  youth's  won  again,  the  pesty  spirit  shed 
each  ten  years  for  more  skin  room.  And  who'll  say  what's  pious 
or  not  pious  or  how  I'll  sing  praise  to  God?  Many  a  morning, 
were't  not  for  a  cup  of  coffee,  a  man  would  be  lonesome  enough 
no  matter  how  his  child  gambols.  And  for  the  boy?  There's  no 
craft  in  him;  it's  this  or  that,  the  thing's  done  and  tomorrow's 
another  day.  But  if  you  push  him  too  close,  try  for  the 
butterflies,  you'll  have  a  devil  at  the  table. 

3 

One  need  not  be  hopelessly  cast  down  because  he  cannot  cut 
onyx  into  a  ring  to  fit  a  lady's  finger.  You  hang  your  head. 
There  is  neither  onyx  nor  porphyry  on  these  roads — only  brown 
dirt.  For  all  that,  one  may  see  his  face  in  a  flower  along  it — 
even  in  this  light.  Eyes  only  and  for  a  flash  only.  Oh,  keep  the 
neck  bent,  plod  with  the  back  to  the  split  dark!  Walk  in  the 
curled  mudcrusts  to  one  side,  hands  hanging.  Ah  well  .  . 
Thoughts  are  trees !  Ha,  ha,  ha,  ha !  Leaves  load  the  branches 
and  upon  them  white  night  sits  kicking  her  heels  against  the  stars. 


A  poem  can  be  made  of  anything.     This  is  a  portrait  of  a 
disreputable  farm  hand  made  out  of  the  stuff  of  his  environment. 


74  IMPROVISATIONS 


XXI. 


There's  the  bathtub.  Look  at  it,  caustically  rejecting  its 
smug  proposal.  Ponder  removedly  the  herculean  task  of  a  bath. 
There's  much  cameraderie  in  filth  but  it's  no'  that.  And  change 
is  lightsome  but  it's  not  that  either.  Fresh  linen  with  a  dab  here, 
there  of  the  wet  paw  serves  me  better.  Take  a  stripling  stroking 
chin-fuzz,  match  his  heart  against  that  of  grandpa  watching  his 
silver  wane.  When  these  two  are  compatible  I'll  plunge  in. 
But  where's  the  edge  lifted  between  sunlight  and  moonlight. 
Where  does  lamplight  cease  to  nick  it?  Here's  hot  water. 


It  is  the  mark  of  our  civilization  that  all  houses  today  include 
a  room  for  the  relief  and  washing  of  the  body,  a  room  ingeniously 
appointed  with  water-vessels  of  many  and  curious  sorts.  There 
is  nothing  in  antiquity  to  equal  this. 


Neatness  and  finish;  the  dust  out  of  every  corner!  You 
swish  from  room  to  room  and  find  all  perfect.  The  house  may 
now  be  carefully  wrapped  in  brown  paper  and  sent  to  a  publisher. 
It  is  a  work  of  art.  You  look  rather  askance  at  me.  Do  not 
believe  I  cannot  guess  your  mind,  yet  I  have  my  studies.  You 
see,  when  the  wheel's  just  at  the  up  turn  it  glimpses  horizon, 
zenith,  all  in  a  burst,  the  pull  of  the  earth  shaken  off,  a  scatter 
of  fragments,  significance  in  a  burst  of  water  striking  up  from 
the  base  of  a  fountain.  Then  at  the  sickening  turn  toward  death 
the  pieces  are  joined  into  a  pretty  thing,  a  bouquet  frozen  in  an 
ice-cake.  This  is  art,  mon  cher,  a  thing  to  carry  up  with  you 
on  the  next  turn;  a  very  small  thing,  inconceivably  feathery. 


Live  as  they  will  together  a  husband  and  wife  give  each 
other  many  a  sidelong  glance  at  unlikely  moments.  Each 
watches  the  other  out  of  the  tail  of  his  eye.  Always  it  seems 


IMPROVISATIONS 75 

some  drunkeness  is  waiting  to  unite  them.  First  one  then  the 
other  empties  some  carafe  of  spirits  forgetting  that  two  lumps  of 
earth  are  neither  wiser  nor  sadder  ....  A  man  watches  his 
wife  clean  house.  He  is  filled  with  knowledge  by  his  wife's 
exertions.  This  is  incomprehensible  to  her.  Knowing  she  will 
never  understand  his  excitement  he  consoles  himself  with  the 
thought  of  art. 

3 

The  pretension  of  these  doors  to  broach  or  to  conclude  our 
pursuits,  our  meetings, — of  these  papered  walls  to  separate  our 
thoughts  of  impossible  tomorrows  and  these  ceilings — that  are  a 
jest  at  shelter  .  .  It  is  laughter  gone  mad — of  a  holiday — that 
has  frozen  into  this — what  shall  I  say?  Call  it,  this  house  of 
ours,  the  crystal  itself  of  laughter,  thus  peaked  and  faceted. 


//  is  a  popular  superstition  that  a  house  is  somehow  the 
possession  of  the  man  who  lives  in  it.  But  a  house  has  no  relation 
whatever  to  anything  but  itself.  The  architect  feels  the  rhythm 
of  the  house  drawing  his  mind  into  opaque  partitions  in  which 
doors  appear,  then  windows  and  so  on  until  out  of  the  vague  or 
clearcut  mind  of  the  architect  the  ill-built  or  deftly-built  house 
has  been  empowered  to  draw  stone  and  timbers  into  a  foreap- 
pointed  focus.  If  one  shut  the  door  of  a  house  he  is  to  that 
extent  a  carpenter. 

Coda 

Outside,  the  north  wind,  coming  and  passing,  swelling  and 
dying,  lifts  the  frozen  sand  drives  it  arattle  against  the  lidless 
windows  and  we  my  dear  sit  stroking  the  cat  stroking  the 
cat  and  smiling  sleepily,  prrrrr. 


A  house  is  sometimes  wine.  It  is  more  than  a  skin.  The 
young  pair  listen  attentively  to  the  roar  of  the  weather.  The 
blustering  cold  takes  on  the  shape  of  a  destructive  presence. 
They  loosen  their  imaginations.  The  house  seems  protecting 
them.  They  relax  gradually  as  though  in  the  keep  of  a  bene 
volent  protector.  Thus  the  house  becomes  a  wine  which  has 
drugged  them  out  of  their  senses. 


76  IMPROVISATIONS 


XXII. 


This  is  a  slight  stiff  dance  to  a  waking  baby  whose  arms 
have  been  lying  curled  back  above  his  head  upon  the  pillow, 
making  a  flower — the  eyes  closed.  Dead  to  the  world !  Waking 
is  a  little  hand  brushing  away  dreams.  Eyes  open.  Here's  a 
new  world. 


There  is  nothing  the  sky-serpent  will  not  eat.  Sometimes  it 
stoops  to  gnaw  Fujiyama,  sometimes  to  slip  its  long  and  softly 
clasping  tongue  about  the  body  of  a  sleeping  child  who  smiles 
thinking  its  mother  is  lifting  it. 


Security,  solidity — we  laugh  at  them  in  our  clique.  It  is 
tobacco  to  us,  this  side  of  her  leg.  We  put  it  in  our  samovar  and 
make  tea  of  it.  You  see  the  stuff  has  possibilities.  You  think 
you  are  opposing  the  rich  but  the  truth  is  you* re  turning  toward 
authority  yourself,  to  say  nothing  of  religion.  No,  I  do  not  say 
it  means  nothing.  Why  everything  is  nicely  adjusted  to  our 
moods.  But  I  would  rather  describe  to  you  what  I  saw  in  the 
kitchen  last  night — overlook  the  girl  a  moment:  there  over  the 
sink  (i)  this  saucepan  holds  all,  (2)  this  colander  holds  most, 
(3)  this  wire  sieve  lets  most  go  and  (4)  this  funnel  holds 
nothing.  You  appreciate  the  progression.  What  need  then  to 
be  always  laughing?  Quit  phrase  making — that  is,  not  of  course 
— but  you  will  understand  me  or  if  not — why—  come  to  break 
fast  sometime  around  evening  on  the  fourth  of  January  any  year 
you  please ;  always  be  punctual  where  eating  is  concerned. 


My  little  son's  improvisations  exceed  mine:  a  round  stone 
to  him's  a  loaf  of  bread  or  (<this  hen  could  lay  a  dozen  golden 
eggs".  Birds  fly  about  his  bedstead;  giants  lean  over  him  with 
hungry  jaws;  bears  roam  the  farm  by  summer  and  are  killed  and 
quartered  at  a  thought.  There  are  interminable  stories  at  eating 


IMPROVISATIONS 77 

time  full  of  bizarre  imagery,  true  grotesques,  pigs  that  change  to 
dogs  in  the  telling,  cows  that  sing,  roosters  that  become  mountains 
and  oceans  that  fill  a  soup  plate.  There  are  groans  and  growls, 
dun  clouds  and  sunshine  mixed  in  a  huge  phantasmagoria  that 
never  rests,  never  ceases  to  unfold  into — the  days  poor  little 
happenings.  Not  that  alone.  He  has  music  which  I  have  not. 
His  tunes  follow  no  scale,  no  rhythm — alone  the  mood  in  odd 
ramblings  up  and  down,  over  and  over  with  a  rigor  of  invention 
that  rises  beyond  the  power  to  follow  except  in  some  more 
obvious  flight.  Never  have  I  heard  so  crushing  a  critique  as 
those  desolate  inventions,  involved  half-hymns,  after  his  first 
visit  to  a  Christian  Sunday  school. 

3 

This  song  is  to  Phyllis!  By  this  deep  snow  I  know  it's 
springtime,  not  ring  time !  Good  God  no !  The  screaming  brat's 
a  sheep  bleating,  the  rattling  crib-side  sheep  shaking  a  bush.  We 
are  young!  We  are  happy!  says  Colin.  What's  an  icy  room 
and  the  sun  not  up?  This  song  is  to  Phyllis.  Reproduction  let's 
death  in,  says  Joyce.  Rot,  say  I.  To  Phyllis  this  song  is ! 


That  which  is  known  has  value  only  by  virtue  of  the  dark. 
This  cannot  be  otherwise.  A  thing  known  passes  out  of  the  mind 
into  the  muscles,  the  will  is  quit  of  it,  save  only  when  set  into 
vibration  by  the  forces  of  darkness  opposed  to  it. 


78  IMPROVISATIONS 


XXIII. 


Baaaa!  Ba-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha !  Bebe  esa  purga.  It  is 
the  goats  of  Santo  Domingo  talking.  Bebe  esa  purga! 
Bebeesapurga !  And  the  answer  is :  Yo  no  lo  quiero  beber! 
Yonoloquierobeber ! 


It  is  nearly  pure  luck  that  gets  the  mind  turned  inside  out 
in  a  work  of  art.  There  is  nothing  more  difficult  than  to  write 
a  poem.  It  is  something  of  a  matter  of  slight  of  hand.  The 
poets  of  the  T'ang  dynasty  or  of  the  golden  age  in  Greece  or  even 
the  Elizabethans:  it's  a  kind  of  alchemy  of  form,  a  deft  bottling 
of  a  fermenting  language.  Take  Dante  and  his  Tuscan  dialect— 
It's  a  matter  of  position.  The  empty  form  drops  from  a  cloud, 
like  a  gourd  from  a  vine;  into  it  the  poet  packs  his  phallus-like 
argument. 


The  red  huckleberry  bushes  running  miraculously  along  the 
ground  among  the  trees  everywhere,  except  where  the  land's 
tilled,  these  keep  her  from  that  tiredness  the  earth's  touch  lays  up 
under  the  soles  of  feet.  She  runs  beyond  the  wood  follows  the 
swiftest  along  the  roads  laughing  among  the  birch  clusters  her 
face  in  the  yellow  leaves  the  curls  before  her  eyes  her  mouth 
half  open.  This  is  a  person  in  particular  there  where  they  have 
her — and  I  have  only  a  wraith  in  the  birch  trees. 


It  is  not  the  lusty  bodies  of  the  nearly  naked  girls  in  the 
shows  about  town,  nor  the  blare  of  the  popular  tunes  that  make 
money  for  the  manager.  The  girls  can  be  procured  rather  more 
easily  in  other  ways  and  the  music  is  dirt  cheap.  It  is  that  this 
meat  is  savored  with  a  strangeness  which  never  looses  its  fresh 
taste  to  generation  after  generation,  either  of  dancers  or  those 
who  watch.  It  is  beauty  escaping,  spinning  up  over  the  heads, 
blown  out  at  the  overtaxed  vents  by  the  electric  fans. 


IMPROVISATIONS  79 


In  many  poor  and  sentimental  households  it  is  a  custom  to 
have  cheap  prints  in  glass  frames  upon  the  walls.  These  are  of 
all  sorts  and  many  sizes  and  may  be  found  in  any  room  from  the 
kitchen  to  the  toilet.  The  drawing  is  always  of  the  worst  and  the 
colors,  not  gaudy  but  almost  always  of  faint  indeterminate  tints, 
are  infirm.  Yet  a  delicate  accuracy  exists  between  these  prints 
and  the  environment  which  breeds  them.  But  as  if  to  intensify 
this  relationship  words  are  added.  There  will  be  a  ''sentiment" 
as  it  is  called,  a  rhyme,  which  the  picture  illuminates.  Many  of 
these  pertain  to  love.  This  is  well  enough  when  the  bed  is  new 
and  the  young  couple  spend  the  long  winter  nights  there  in 
delightful  seclusion.  But  childbirth  follows  in  its  time  and  a 
motto  still  hangs  above  the  bed.  It  is  only  then  that  the  full 
ironical  meaning  of  these  prints  leaves  the  paper  and  the  frame 
and  starting  through  the  glass  takes  undisputed  sway  over  the 
household. 


8o  IMPROVISATIONS 


XXIV. 


I  like  the  boy.  It's  years  back  I  began  to  draw  him  to  me 
— or  he  was  pushed  my  way  by  the  others.  And  what  if  there's 
no  sleep  because  the  bed's  burning ;  is  that  a  reason  to  send  a  chap 
to  Grey  stone !  Greystone !  There's  a  name  if  you've  any  tatter 
of  mind  left  in  you.  It's  the  long  back,  narrowing  that  way  at 
the  waist  perhaps  whets  the  chisel  in  me.  How  the  flanks  flutter 
and  the  heart  races.  Imagination!  That's  the  worm  in  the 
apple.  What  if  it  run  to  paralyses  and  blind  fires,  here's  sense 
loose  in  a  world  set  on  foundations.  Blame  buzzards  for  the  eyes 
they  have. 


Buzzards,  granted  their  disgusting  habit  in  regard  to  meat, 
have  eyes  of  a  power  equal  to  that  of  the  eagles'. 


Five  miscarriages  since  January  is  a  considerable  record 
Emily  dear— but  hearken  to  me :  The  Pleiades — that  small  cluster 
of  lights  in  the  sky  there — .  You'd  better  go  on  in  the  house 
before  you  catch  cold.  Go  on  now ! 


Carelessness  of  heart  is  a  virtue  akin  to  the  small  lights  of 
the  stars.  But  it  is  sad  to  see  virtues  in  those  who  have  not  the 
gift  of  the  imagination  to  value  them. 

Damn  me  I  feel  sorry  for  them.  Yet  syphilis  is  no  more 
than  a  wild  pink  in  the  rock's  cleft.  I  know  that.  Radicals  and 
capitalists  doing  a  can-can  tread  the  ground  clean.  Luck  to  the 
feet  then.  Bring  a  Russian  to  put  a  fringe  to  the  rhythm.  What's 
the  odds?  Commiseration  cannot  solve  calculus.  Calculus  is  a 
stone.  Frost'll  crack  it.  Till  then,  there's  many  a  good  back- 
road  among  the  clean  raked  fields  of  hell  where  autumn  flowers 
are  blossoming. 


IMPROVISATIONS 81 

Pathology  literally  speaking  is  a  flower  garden.  Syphilis 
covers  the  body  with  salmon-red  petals.  The  study  of  medicine 
is  an  inverted  sort  of  horticulture.  Over  and  above  all  this  floats 
the  philosophy  of  disease  which  is  a  stern  dance.  One  of  its 
most  delightful  gestures  is  bringing  flowers  to  the  sick. 

3 

For  a  choice?  Go  to  bed  at  three  in  the  afternoon  with 
your  clothes  on:  dreams  for  you!  Here's  an  old  bonnefemme 
in  a  pokebonnet  staring  into  the  rear  of  a  locomotive.  Or  if 
this  prove  too  difficult  take  a  horse-drag  made  of  green  limbs,  a 
kind  of  leaf  cloth.  Up  the  street  with  it!  Ha,  how  the  tar 
clings.  Here's  glee  for  the  children.  All's  smeared.  Green's 
black.  Leap  like  a  devil,  clap  hands  and  cast  around  for  more. 
Here's  a  pine  wood  driven  head  down  into  a  mud-flat  to  build  a 
school  on.  Oh  la,  la!  sand  pipers  made  mathematicians  at  the 
state's  cost. 


82  IMPROVISATIONS 


XXV. 


There's  force  to  this  cold  sun,  makes  beard  stubble  stand 
shinily.  We  look,  we  pretend  great  things  to  our  glass — rubbing 
our  chin:  This  is  a  profound  comedian  who  grimaces  deeds  into 
slothful  breasts.  This  is  a  sleepy  president,  without  followers 
save  oak  leaves — but  their  coats  are  of  the  wrong  color.  This 
is  a  farmer — plowed  a  field  in  his  dreams  and  since  that  time- 
goes  stroking  the  weeds  that  choke  his  furrows.  This  is  a  poet 
left  his  own  country — 


The  simple  expedient  of  a  mirror  has  practical  use  for 
arranging  the  hair,  for  observation  of  the  set  of  a  coat,  etc.  But 
as  an  exercise  for  the  mind  the  use  of  a  mirror  cannot  be  too 
highly  recommended.  Nothing  of  a  mechanical  nature  could  be 
more  conducive  to  that  elasticity  of  the  attention  which  frees 
the  mind  for  the  enjoyment  of  its  special  prerogatives. 


A  man  can  shoot  his  spirit  up  out  of  a  wooden  house,  that 
is,  through  the  roof — the  roof's  slate — but  how  far?  It  is  of 
final  importance  to  know  that.  To  say  the  world  turns  under  my 
feet  and  that  I  watch  it  passing  with  a  smile  is  neither  the  truth 
nor  my  desire.  But  I  would  wish  to  stand — you've  seen  the 
kingfisher  do  it — where  the  largest  town  might  be  taken  in  my 
two  hands,  as  high  let  us  say  as  a  man's  head — some  one  man 
not  too  far  above  the  clouds.  What  would  I  do  then?  Oh  I'd 
hold  my  sleeve  over  the  sun  awhile  to  make  church  bells  ring. 


It  is  obvious  that  if  in  flying  an  airplane  one  reached  such 
an  altitude  that  all  sense  of  direction  and  every  intelligible  percep 
tion  of  the  world  were  lost  there  would  be  nothing  left  to  do  but 
to  come  down  to  that  point  at  which  eyes  regained  their  power. 

Towels  will  stay  in  a  heap — if  the  window's  shut  and  oil 
in  a  bottle— if  the  cork's  there.  But  if  the  meat's  not  cut  to  suit 


IMPROVISATIONS 83 

it's  no  use  rising  before  sun  up,  you'll  never  sweep  the  dust  from 
these  floors.  Hide  smiles  among  the  tall  glasses  in  the  cupboard, 
come  back  when  you  think  the  trick's  done  and  you'll  find  only 
dead  flies  there.  It's  beyond  hope.  You  were  not  born  of  a 
Monday. 


There  are  divergences  of  humor  that  cannot  be  reconciled. 
A  young  woman  of  much  natural  grace  of  manner  and  very  apt  at 
a  certain  color  of  lie  is  desirous  of  winning  the  good  graces  of  one 
only  slightly  her  elder  but  nothing  comes  of  her  exertions. 
Instead  of  yielding  to  a  superficial  advantage  she  finally  gives  up 
the  task  and  continues  In  her  own  delicate  bias  of  peculiar  and 
beautiful  design  much  to  the  secret  delight  of  the  onlooker  who 
Is  thus  regaled  by  the  spectacle*  of  two  exquisite  and  divergent 
natures  playing  one  against  the  other. 

3 

Hark !  There's  laughter !  These  fight  and  draw  nearer, 
we — fight  and  draw  apart.  They  know  the  things  they  say  are 
true  bothways,  we  miss  the  joke — try  to — Oh,  try  to.  Let  it  go 
at  that.  There  again!  Real  laughter.  At  least  we  have  each 
other  in  the  ring  of  that  music.  "He  saved  a  little  then  had  to  go 
and  die".  But  isn't  it  the  same  with  all  of  us?  Not  at  all. 
Some  laugh  and  laugh,  with  little  grey  eyes  looking  out  through 
the  chinks — but  not  brown  eyes  rolled  up  in  a  full  roar.  One 
can't  have  everything. 


Going  along  an  lllworn  dirt  road  on  the  outskirts  of  a  mill 
town  one  Sunday  afternoon  two  lovers  who  have  quarreled  hear 
the  loud  cursing  and  shouts  of  drunken  laborers  and  their  women, 
followed  by  loud  laughter  and  wish  that  their  bodies  were  two 
fluids  In  the  same  vessel.  Then  they  fall  to  twitting  each  other 
on  the  many  ways  of  laughing. 


IMPROVISATIONS 


XXVI. 


Doors  have  a  back  side  also.  And  grass  blades  are  double- 
edged.  It's  no  use  trying  to  deceive  me,  leaves  fall  more  by  the 
buds  that  push  them  off  than  by  lack  of  greenness.  Or  throw 
two  shoes  on  the  floor  and  see  how  they'll  lie  if  you  think  it's 
all  one  way. 

2 

There  is  no  truth — sh ! — but  the  honest  truth  and  that  is  that 
touch-me-nots  mean  nothing,  that  daisies  at  a  distance  seem 
mushrooms  and  that — your  Japanese  silk  today  was  not  the  sky's 
blue  but  your  pajamas  now  as  you  lean  over  the  crib's  edge 
are  and  day's  in!  Grassgreen  the  mosquito  net  caught  over 
your  head's  butt  for  foliage.  What  else?  except  odors — an  old 
hallway.  Moresco.  Salvage.  — and  a  game  of  socker.  I  was 
too  nervous  and  young  to  win — that  day. 

3 

All  that  seem  solid:  melancholias,  idees  fixes,  eight  years 
at  the  academy,  Mr.  Locke,  this  year  and  the  next  and  the  next 
— one  like  another — wheel — they  are  April  zephyrs,  were  one 
a  Botticelli,  between  their  chinks,  pink  anemones. 


Often  it  happens  that  in  a  community  of  no  great  distinction 
some  fellow  of  superficial  learning  but  great  stupidity  will  seem 
to  be  rooted  in  the  earth  of  the  place  the  most  solid  figure 
imaginable  impossible  to  remove  him. 


IMPROVISATIONS  85 


XXVII. 


The  particular  thing,  whether  it  be  four  pinches  of  four 
divers  white  powders  cleverly  compounded  to  cure  surely,  safely, 
pleasantly  a  painful  twitching  of  the  eyelids  or  say  a  pencil 
sharpened  at  one  end,  dwarfs  the  imagination,  makes  logic  a 
butterfly,  offers  a  finality  that  sends  us  spinning  through  space,  a 
fixity  the  mind  could  climb  forever,  a  revolving  mountain,  a  com 
plexity  with  a  surface  of  glass :  the  gist  of  poetry.  D.  C.  al  fin. 


There  is  no  thing  that  with  a  twist  of  the  imagination  cannot 
be  something  else.  Porpoises  risen  in  a  green  sea,  the  wind  at 
nightfall  bending  the  rose-red  grasses  and  you — in  your  apron 
running  to  catch — say  it  seems  to  you  to  be  your  son.  How 
ridiculous !  You  will  pass  up  into  a  cloud  and  look  back  at  me, 
not  count  the  scribbling  foolish  that  put  wings  to  your  heels,  at 
your  knees. 

3 

Sooner  or  later  as  with  the  leaves  forgotten  the  swinging 
branch  long  since  and  summer :  they  scurry  before  a  wind  on  the 
frost-baked  ground — have  no  place  to  rest — somehow  invoke  a 
burst  of  warm  days  not  of  the  past  nothing  decayed:  crisp 
summer! — neither  a  copse  for  resurrected  frost  eaters  but  a 
summer  removed  undestroyed  a  summer  of  dried  leaves 
scurrying  with  a  screech,  to  and  fro  in  the  half  dark — twittering, 
chattering,  scraping.  Hagh ! 


Seeing  the  leaves  dropping  from  the  high  and  low  branches 
the  thought  rises:  this  day  of  all  others  is  the  one  chosen,  all 
other  days  fall  away  from  it  on  either  side  and  only  itself  remains 
in  perfect  fulness.  It  is  its  own  summer,  of  its  leaves  as  they 
scrape  on  the  smooth  ground  it  must  build  its  perfection.  The 
gross  summer  of  the  year  is  only  a  halting  counterpart  of  those 
fiery  days  of  secret  triumph  which  in  reality  themselves  paint  the 


86 IMPROVISATIONS 

year  as  if  upon  a  parchment,  giving  each  season  a  mockery  of  the 
warmth  or  frozeness  which  is  within  ourselves.  The  true  seasons 
blossom  or  wilt  not  in  fixed  order  but  so  that  many  of  them  may 
pass  in  a  few  weeks  or  hours  whereas  sometimes  a  whole  life 
passes  and  the  season  remains  of  a  piece  from  one  end  to  the 
other. 


THE   END. 


RETURN  TO:      CIRCULATION  DEPARTMENT 
1 98  Main  Stacks 


LOAN  PERIOD     1 
Home  Use 

2 

3 

4 

5 

6 

ALL  BOOKS  MAY  BE  RECALLED  AFTER  7  DAYS. 

Renewals  and  Recharges  may  be  made  4  days  prior  to  the  due  date. 
Books  may  be  renewed  by  calling  642-3405. 

DUE  AS  STAMPED  BELOW. 


SENT  ON  ILL 

MAY  0  2  2003 

JAN  1  1  m/ 

U.  C  BERKFi  rv 

•  **•  "C-ttixtLgy 

OCT  1  0  2004 

FEB  1  3  2005 

MAY  2  3  2005 

AUG  1  0  2005 

FORM  NO.  DD6 
50M    5-02 


UNIVERSITY  OF  CALIFORNIA,  BERKELEY 
Berkeley,  California  94720-6000 


U.C.  BERKELEY  LIBRARIES 


\,  m